Jules Bledsoe

Famed baritone vocalist Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe was born December 29, 1887 in Waco, McLennan County, Texas to Henry Lee Devalt Bledsoe and Jessie Cobb Bledsoe.  His father died when he was still an infant and by the time he was about two and a half years old, he and his mother were living with her parents, the Cobbs, near downtown Waco.  His grandfather Stephen Cobb has been mentioned as a founder of Waco’s historic congregation, New Hope Baptist Church.  It was at New Hope where young Julius had sung solos by the time he was five years old.  In 1914, Bledsoe graduated as valedictorian of Central Texas Academy, founded by African American Baptists in 1901 in Waco.  From there, Julius went on to enroll at Temple College in Waco before transferring to Bishop College in Marshall, Texas where he earned his A B degree.

Jules, as he became known, then appears to have briefly attended college in Virginia around the time of World War I.  He registered for the draft in September, 1918 at Camp Lee located at Petersburg, Virginia.  Since it was so close to the end of the war, he may not have entered the military.  Bledsoe then enrolled at Columbia University in New York where he studied language, philosophy and science.  He then attended Chicago Musical College as he studied voice with private instructors including Claude Warford, Luigi Parisotti and Lazar Samoiloff.

Bledsoe’s first professional singing appearance is said to have been in 1924 in New York’s Aeolian Theater.  He then appeared in the role of Tizan in 1926 in the Broadway production of Frank Harling’s opera/musical “Deep River.”  Then in 1927, Jules was cast in the role of Joe in Jerome Kern’s new musical “Show Boat.”  Some accounts say that Kern had Bledsoe in mind to sing “Ol’ Man River” when he wrote the musical.  Other (and probably more likely) accounts say that Kern may have initially preferred popular African American vocalist Paul Robeson to play the role of Joe, but Robeson was not available.  Robeson appeared as Joe in later productions of the musical and the second film adaptation of the musical.

“Showboat” was the product of Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern.  It featured dialogue and lyrics in the vernacular of the period during which shows were conducted aboard river boats.  Romance and issues involving racism were integral themes throughout the musical, based on novelist Edna Ferber’s 1926 book of the same name.

The sequence of events that led to the role of Joe going to Bledsoe were timely.  The role was a perfect match and vehicle for his wonderful voice.  His rendition of the song “Ol’ Man River” became a show stopper in the musical which played to sold out houses on Broadway for over a year.  The Broadway musical established Bledsoe in the world of theater and contributed positively toward the increasing employment of African American artists on Broadway.  A life-long vocalist and able to sing in six languages, Bledsoe had the necessary talent and strong desire to sing opera, but African American singers were not hired in major American opera companies at that time.  However, Bledsoe was able to sing in touring opera companies in the United States and with opera companies in the United Kingdom and Europe.  He also composed songs and completed an opera named “Bondage” based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Image credit: findagrave.com

Waco, Texas was proud to follow and acknowledge Bledsoe as a home grown talent.  A headline in the Waco News-Tribune on March 14, 1941 stated “Bledsoe’s Superb Performance Nets Good British Gate.”  The singer packed out Baylor’s Waco Hall for a benefit performance raising funds for relief of England during the Battle of Britain.  “Ol’ Man River” was supposed to be the finale, but the singer was called out many more times for encores.

Jules had a successful career as a vocalist and had also begun to appear in a few Hollywood films.  According to current genealogical sources, Jules is not known to have married nor had any children.  His life was cut short on July 14, 1943 when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in Hollywood, California after appearing with Eleanor Roosevelt on a War Bond tour.  His body was returned to his home town of Waco, Texas.  Bledsoe’s funeral was held on July 21, 1943 at New Hope Baptist Church and was attended by 1,800 people.  The funeral observance included the New Hope Choir singing “Lead Kindly Light,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”  Bledsoe’s life and career were celebrated by Dr. Joe Armstrong, English professor and Browning scholar at Baylor University in Waco.  Following the funeral, Bledsoe’s remains were interred at Greenwood Cemetery on Waco’s east side.  His tombstone includes a line of music from “Ol’ Man River.”

Jules Bledsoe singing “Ol’ Man River”

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