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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 later 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 musical established Bledsoe in the world of musical 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.”

bledsoe

(Image credit: Harlem World Magazine)

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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Posted by on August 6, 2020 in biography, black history, entertainers

 

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Greer Garson

On August 6, 1939, the Harlingen, Texas Valley Morning Star read “Donat Stars In New Film” followed by the sub heading ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips” in Mercedes, Texas.  The article went on to describe the latest film of popular leading man Robert Donat.  Based on the James Hilton novel of the same name, the film tells the story of the life and teaching career of Charles Edward Chipping, a Latin teacher at a British boys’ school.  Donat’s character falls for and marries a beautiful and flashy young woman named Katherine, played by actress Greer Garson in her debut performance.  Revealed in a series of flashbacks, the film portrays the events in Chipping’s life and the individuals who were part of it.  Donat would go on to win an Oscar for Best Actor.  The film was the first major role in the long and successful career of Garson.  She was also nominated for an Oscar that year, but the award went instead to Vivian Leigh for her performance in “Gone With The Wind.”

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Posted by on July 16, 2020 in entertainers, films, schools

 

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Fess Parker, Jr.

Fess Elisha Parker, Jr. was born on August 16, 1924 in Fort Worth, Texas to Fess Parker, Sr. and Mackie Allen Parker.  His father had been born in California, but his mother was born in Texas.  His paternal grandparents Otis L. and Cora Lightfoot Parker had been a farming family in Comanche County, Texas and both are buried there.  Fess grew up in San Angelo and was a multi sport athlete there.  He graduated from San Angelo High School in 1939 and did a hitch in the United States Navy before coming back to Texas and enrolling at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene in 1943.

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Posted by on June 4, 2020 in biography, entertainers, films

 

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Debbie Reynolds

Debbie (Mary Frances) Reynolds was born April 1, 1932 in El Paso, Texas to Raymond Francis and Maxine N. Harmon Reynolds.  Raymond had been born in 1903 in Whitewright, Grayson County, Texas.  His father was a rural school teacher in 1910.  By 1920, Raymond’s father was working in the Post Office and the family lived in Dallas.  As of 1930, Raymond and Maxine had married and were living with Maxine’s family in El Paso.  Raymond was working as a carpenter for a railroad company.  That same year, their eldest son William Owen Reynolds was born to Raymond and Maxine, followed by Mary Frances (likely named for Raymond’s sister) in 1932.  Raymond lost his job in Texas during the Depression.  Reynolds was not embarrassed by her humble upbringing.  She would say of their life in El Paso that her mother took in washing and that they always had plenty to eat, even if her father had to go out in the desert and shoot rabbits.  By 1940, the new family had moved to Burbank, California where Raymond was working as a “tinder man” for Southern Pacific.

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Posted by on April 16, 2020 in biography, entertainers, films

 

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Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens, Jr.

Buck Owens was born Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr. to Alvis Edgar and Macie Owens in Sherman, Texas in 1929.  He is said to have given himself the nickname of Buck after his favorite mule (alternately said to be a donkey or a horse in different accounts) when he was young.  His father, Alvis Edgar, Sr., was a sharecropping farmer in Grayson County, Texas.  In 1937, the family moved west to Arizona.  The family legend is that their trailer broke down near Phoenix, Arizona where they had other relatives, so they elected to settle there.  Similar to the stories of many other musical artists, Buck’s mother sang and played the piano at their home and in church.  Buck learned to play the guitar, mandolin and other instruments when he was a youth.  He dropped out of school at age thirteen to help the family survive and did all sorts of jobs to raise money.  As a young man, Buck began performing in honky-tonks to earn his living.  When he was about twenty, he married his first wife, the former Bonnie Campbell, a singer in a band both she and Buck played in called Mac and the Skillet Lickers.  Buck and Bonnie eventually moved to Bakersfield, California where Buck began to play around town and in the surrounding area. Buck and Bonnie would remain married for about five years.  He was married three more times.

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Posted by on January 16, 2020 in biography, entertainers, music

 

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