Jules Bledsoe

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Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe (1897–1943)[1] was a once renowned, but now semi-forgotten baritone, and the first African-American artist to gain regular employment on Broadway, subsequent to Bert Williams, William Grant Still, Ford Dabney and others.


Jules Bledsoe was born in Waco, Texas, in 1897. After graduating from Bishop College he studied at Virginia Union College and Columbia University. He debuted in New York's Aeolian Hall in 1924 which resulted in his obtaining management from impresario Sol Hurok.

Bledsoe performed in Frank Harling's opera Deep River in 1926 and he created the role of Joe in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat in 1927, after Paul Robeson was unable to appear in it because of scheduling conflicts. (Robeson first played the role five months after the Broadway opening, in the 1928 London production. He eventually eclipsed Bledsoe in the role, and became world-famous for his rendition of Ol' Man River. Robeson also played Joe in the 1932 Broadway production, in the 1936 film version, and a 1940 Los Angeles stage production, and he made many recordings of Ol' Man River, as opposed to Bledsoe, who made only one.)

Between 1929 and 1930, Bledsoe appeared in three musical film Shorts - Old Man Trouble, On the Levee, and Dear Old Southland.

In Verdi's opera with the Chicago Opera Aida Bledsoe sang the role of Amonasro. In 1930, Bledsoe attempted to create an original musical setting of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, but he lacked the permission of the playwright which was already secured by composer Louis Gruenberg. Though the honor went to Lawrence Tibbett to create the title role on stage on January 7, 1933, in a celebrated production of the New York Metropolitan Opera, Bledsoe played the character in a production in Amsterdam in 1934, and later in Paris, Vienna, Brussels and London, and still later in New York. With a voice of relatively limited scope, Bledsoe also performed the title character in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

Bledsoe toured the concert circuit and was a member of the Roxy Theatre's music staff as a part of Roxy's Gang. The 1935 BBC program Songs of the Negro was compiled by Bledsoe, who then sang in Blackbirds of 1936, a London production.

Bledsoe's only recording of Ol' Man River, which he sang in the original production of Show Boat, is occasionally played on the NPR musical theatre program, A Night on the Town. His rendition of the song, especially in comparison to those made famous by Paul Robeson, William Warfield (in the 1951 film version), Bruce Hubbard (on the 1988 three-disc EMI album), and Michel Bell (in the Harold Prince revival of the show), is somewhat exaggeratedly melodramatic in the manner of early twentieth-century acting, and Bledsoe rolls all of his "r"'s, as a baritone might when singing his solos in an oratorio. A recently released album of vintage spiritual recordings features Bledsoe singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in that same exaggeratedly melodramatic style,[2] which demonstrates that it was not unique to his performance of Ol' Man River. Bledsoe was also actually filmed singing the song - his rendition of it was included in the sound prologue to the part-talkie Show Boat (1929 film version).

In November 1933, Billie Holiday made her first record as vocalist for Benny Goodman's studio orchestra doing a fairly popular song, "Your Mother's Son-In-Law", written by Nichols and Holiner for Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1934. In the song, there is a reference to Bledsoe - "You don't have to sing like Bledsoe. You can tell the world I said so."

Bledsoe died in Hollywood, California, on July 14, 1943.[3] His papers, including sheet music, photographs, and recordings, are housed in The Texas Collection at Baylor University.[4]


  • Eileen Southern (ed.), The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd edition, W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97141-4

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