Being the same age and performing a similar repertoire of music as Paul Robeson was not the most propitious time of life for Jules Bledsoe. Despite these disadvantages, he managed to carve out a niche and produce a marvelous corpus of folk and classical vocals.
Born Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe on July 14, 1898, to Henry and Jessie Cobb Bledsoe in Waco, Texas, he didn’t get a chance to truly experience nurturing from both parents who separated a year after his birth. With his mother, Jules went to live with her family and later attended the Central Texas Academy from 1905 to 1914. He excelled as a student and was honored as the valedictorian of his class. At Bishop College he earned his B.A. in 1918. His next academic stint was at Virginia Union College from 1918 to 1919, where he was a member of the ROTC (Reserved Officers’ Training Corps).
From 1920 to 1924, Jules studied medicine at Columbia University, at the same time, and even earlier, he devoted a considerable amount of time to his musical passion, studying under such esteemed mentors as Claude Warford, Luigi Parisotti, and Lazar Samoiloff. On April 20, 1924, under the sponsorship of the noted impresario Sol Hurok, he made his professional singing debut at Aeolian Hall in New York City.
Two years later, he appeared as Tizan in Frank Harling’s opera “Deep River.” In 1927, he was the first to perform as Joe in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Show Boat,” preceding Robeson and William Warfield. Several years before Robeson was singularly identified with the musical and the song “Ol’ Man River” he popularized the song.
Further demonstrating his versatility, Jules sang the role of Amonasro from Verdi’s “Aida” for the Chicago Opera’s production. He was unable to secure permission to create a musical setting for Eugene O’Neill’s, “The Emperor Jones,” which had already been contracted to Louis Gruenberg and that lead role was given to the white baritone Lawrence Tibbett, who originated the role in 1933 and performed in blackface.
James Weldon Johnson, the great author and statesman, had said that only two singers could possibly fulfill that obligation—Paul Robeson or Jules Bledsoe. A year later in Amsterdam, Jules delivered his version of the haunted Black man on an island where he ruled with brutal authority. He would feature that role in several other European cities and in New York City. His recording of the song was occasionally played on NPR musical theater program, “A Night on the Town.”
Jules’s voice, with his riveting enunciation and splendid diction, is captured on a recording of vintage spirituals, including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” An October 1925 concert at the Town Hall in New York City, featured a number of spirituals by Jules.
In 1927, Jules shared the stage with Rose McClendon, Abbie Mitchell, and Frank Wilson in Paul Green’s “In Abraham’s Bosom” which went on to earn Green a Pulitzer Prize. Interestingly, to continue the Robeson-Bledsoe relationship, in 1928 Robeson stepped in and replaced Bledsoe as Crown in the production of “Porgy.”
One of his outstanding roles was in the title character of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” Between 1929 and 1930, he appeared in three musical films “Shorts—Old Man Trouble,” “On the Levee,” and “Dear Old Southland.” In the early ’40s, he worked in Hollywood with credited and uncredited roles, most memorable is the part of Kalu in “Drums of the Congo.”
Jules died in Hollywood on July 24 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, a city-owned cemetery in Waco. His papers, as well as sheet music, photographs, letters, and other memorabilia are housed in the Texas Collection at Baylor
University. A recreation facility in Waco is jointly named the Bledsoe-Miller Community Center, in honor of Jules and Doris Miller.