Jules Bledsoe

Aug 24th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Jules Bledsoe1899?-1943  Jules Bledsoe was an exceptionally accomplished singer of classical music, spirituals, and the contemporary show tunes of his time, and a talented composer of vocal music as well. Launched to prominence by his unforgettable performance in the original Broadway production of Show Boat, he transcended racial discrimination in his native Texas and throughout the United States to win the hearts of audiences and critics, both black and white.

From Medical School to Music

Bledsoe was born in Waco, Texas, in the late 1890s, to Henry and Jessie Cobb Bledsoe, part of an extended family of musicians. After early singing and piano lessons from his aunt, he began singing in a local church by the age of five. His talent was recognized early, and he received support from community members to attend a private preparatory school, Central Texas Academy, where he was valedictorian in 1914. From there, Bledsoe attended the historically black Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, where his musical studies continued. He performed publicly in Waco as early as 1916 in the normally segregated Baylor University auditorium.

After graduating from Bishop College, Bledsoe moved to New York City to begin medical studies at Columbia University. But following his mother’s death in 1920, his interest in music was reawakened, and he abandoned his medical career. In 1921, he appeared in Shufflin’ Along, a hit all-black musical revue starring Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. During this period, Bledsoe also studied with several prominent classical vocal teachers in New York, leading to his formal debut there in 1924. He received excellent notices for his performance of classical vocal pieces and spirituals arranged for solo voice. This brought him to the attention of Sol Hurok, the renowned impresario and manager, who took Bledsoe on as a client, leading to a series of successful recitals and popular music concerts.

This early stage of Bledsoe’s professional development also took him home to Texas for a performance at the Waco Auditorium in 1925, where he played to a packed house despite prevailing racial prejudice. But it was probably a 1926 New York performance, in the opera Deep River, which would lead to the best-known achievement of his career.

The Role of a Lifetime

Bledsoe’s Deep River performance apparently came to the attention of two of the greatest stage musical writers of the era, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. The duo was adapting a novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat, with renowned producer Florenz Ziegfeld. They were intent on creating a wholly respectful African American work of musical theater, one that blended its songs seamlessly into the story. This was a radical departure from the style of musical revues, operettas, and light comedies that populated Broadway at the time, and in this they succeeded: “Here we come to a completely new genre—the musical play, as distinguished from musical comedy,” according to an authoritative source.

Hammerstein and Kern’s choice of Bledsoe for the role of the black everyman, Joe, proved to be an inspired one. Bledsoe’s rendition of the now classic Ol’ Man River set the standard for the tune and the defining moment for the entire show. After out-of-town runs in Pittsburg, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, Show Boat made its Broadway debut in December 1927, and was an immediate hit. It would go on to run for two years in this original production. But Paul Robeson, the esteemed African American vocalist, appeared in the London production in 1928, and then in the 1932 Broadway staging, along with subsequent studio film and audio recordings, and became more popularly associated with the role of Joe and the song Ol’ Man River.

Meanwhile, Bledsoe continued to concertize and expand his range of media. In 1929, he made a number of early, short films with sound, precursors to the soon-to-arrive “talkies,” and that same year appeared in the first film version of Show Boat. His performance schedule was varied and frenetic, ranging from one-night stands at local venues to major operatic appearances, including the first such for an African American singer in the United States in 1932, in the role of Amonasro in Aida, and in the title role of Emperor Jones. He toured widely in Europe during this period, including a Show Boat tour, where he was particularly well received by Dutch and British fans, played in virtually every European country, and was accompanied by all the major orchestras as a soloist. Bledsoe also performed over radio, then the leading medium in terms of audience reach, but largely off-limits to black entertainers, with a national broadcast in 1938. And by 1942, he had established a base in Hollywood, where he made a forgettable B-movie, Drums of the Congo, for Universal Pictures.

Over time, Bledsoe had also developed his talents as a composer, and began performing original songs. One of them, a patriotic anthem titled Ode to America, was dedicated to President Franklin Roosevelt. This song earned Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention and respect; she accepted the dedication in person at its inaugural radio performance in 1941, and Bledsoe was subsequently invited to sing it for President Roosevelt in Washington, accompanied by Howard University’s glee club. Also in 1941, Bledsoe’s alma mater, Bishop College, awarded him a Doctor of Music degree. Through the early years of World War II, he sustained an energetic schedule of benefit concerts across the country, and in England and Europe, performing an astonishingly diverse and broad repertoire of original tunes, spirituals, opera arias, and classical songs, including fluent renditions of French and Spanish compositions. He also wrote an opera based on the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, entitled Bondage, and composed an African Suite for voice and orchestra.

In 1943, Bledsoe launched another exhausting tour, accompanied in part by Eleanor Roosevelt, to promote the sale of war bonds. Soon after the tour’s start, in July of that year, he died unexpectedly in Hollywood, reportedly from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried in Waco, where thousands of mourners of all races attended the ceremony. His tombstone inscription includes the music and lyrics from Ol’ Man River, a fitting testimonial to a great artist and a wonderful career.


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