Jules Bledsoe

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Jules Bledsoe thought he wanted to become a doctor at first. At the outset of the roaring '20s he was a medical student at Columbia University, having received his undergraduate degree from Dallas' Bishop…
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Jules Bledsoe thought he wanted to become a doctor at first. At the outset of the roaring '20s he was a medical student at Columbia University, having received his undergraduate degree from Dallas' Bishop College in his home state of Texas. Sometime during the medical school days the performing bug bit, and judging from Bledsoe's subsequent success as a concert singer, actor, and composer, it must have been a pretty hard chomp. He studied music in the United States and abroad, taking voice lessons with Claude Warford, Luigi Parisotti, and Lazar Samoiloff. By 1924 he was ready to make his singing debut at New York's Aeolian Hall in a program of Handel, Bach, Purcell, and Brahms sponsored by noted impresario Sol Hurok. The performance was received with rave reviews, and within two years Bledsoe had garnered a choice role in the 1926 opera Deep River. His operatic career continued in both Europe and in the United States, Bledsoe's rich baritone heard with the Boston Symphony and the Municipal Opera Company of Cleveland, among others. He became known for his mastery of several languages as well as his broad dramatic range.

The following year he created the role of Joe in Showboat, the part he would inevitably be most lauded for, although ironically much of the public associates Paul Robeson with this character. Bledsoe's interpretation of "Ol' Man River" was a stunner, turning the song into a standard of Americana. Showboat premiered at the Ziegfield Theater, and in 1929 Bledsoe recreated the role in the first of three motion picture versions of the show. By 1932 Robeson had taken over the Joe and "Ol' Man River franchise, his interpretation of the role pretty much a Xerox of his predecessor's work. Meanwhile, Bledsoe was hardly sitting around griping. He triumphed in a 1931 Carnegie Hall recital and in 1934 took on the title role in the Louis Gruenberg opera Emperor Jones. The latter show began its run of performances at the Hippodrome in New York, continuing with both domestic and European tours. Bledsoe sang with the BBC Symphony in London in 1936, and the next year with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. He also performed for vaudeville and radio.

In the early '40s, he seems to have tried to launch a Hollywood career, beginning with the corny part of Kalu in Drums of the Congo. This was followed by a series of uncredited bits in films such as Safari, Western Union, and Santa Fe Trail. Clearly, the Hollywood film moguls had no idea what to do with him.

Bledsoe's activities as a composer include his "African Suite" for voice and orchestra as well as a selection of patriotic, spiritual, and folk songs. These include "Does Ah Luv You?," "Pagan Prayer," "Good Old British Blue," and "Ode to America." One of his most epic projects was Bondage, a 1939 opera based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin. The word "under" can be easily prefixed to any discussion of performances or recordings of Bledsoe's original music. Vocalist Esther Hinds created the first recordings of five Bledsoe arias on her solo CD in the '90s, about which the producer commented that he had learned "never to have a fight with a 300-pound soprano." Bledsoe died of a cerebral hemorrhage while still based in Hollywood. He was buried in Waco.