Jules Bledsoe

Jules Bledsoe

Jules Bledsoe (1898 - 1943) was a once renowned, but now semi-forgotten baritone, and the first African American artist to gain regular employment on Broadway.

After graduating from Bishop College in Texas, he studied at Virginia Union College and Columbia University. He debuted in New York's Aeolian Hall in 1924 which resulted in him obtaining management from impresario Sol Hurok.

Bledsoe performed in Frank Harling's opera "Deep River" in 1926 and he created the role of Joe in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's "Show Boat" in 1927, after Paul Robeson was unable to appear in it because of scheduling conflicts. (Robeson first played the role five months after the Broadway opening, in the 1928 London production. He eventually eclipsed Bledsoe in the role, and became world-famous for his rendition of "Ol' Man River". Robeson also played Joe in the 1932 Broadway production, in the 1936 film version, and a 1940 Los Angeles stage production, and he made many recordings of "Ol' Man River", as opposed to Bledsoe, who made only one.)

In Verdi's opera with the Chicago Opera "Aida" Bledsoe sang the role of Amonasro. In Louis Gruenberg's "The Emperor Jones", he played the title character. Both aforementioned productions were at the Hippodrome. In a Holland production, he sang the title character in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov".

Bledsoe toured the concert circuit and was a member of the Roxy Theatre's music staff as a part of Roxy's Gang. The 1935 BBC program "Songs of the Negro" was programmed by Bledsoe who then sang in "Blackbirds of 1936", a London production.

Bledsoe's only recording of "Ol' Man River", which he sang in the original production of "Show Boat", is occasionally played on the NPR musical theatre program, "A Night on the Town". His rendition of the song, especially in comparison to those made famous by Paul Robeson, William Warfield (in the 1951 film version), Bruce Hubbard (on the 1988 3-disc EMI album), and Michel Bell (in the Harold Prince revival of the show), is somewhat exaggeratedly melodramatic in the manner of early twentieth-century acting, and Bledsoe rolls all of his "r"'s, as a baritone might when singing his solos in an oratorio. A recently released album of vintage spiritual recordings features Bledsoe singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in that same exaggeratedly melodramatic style, [ [http://music.barnesandnoble.com/search/product.asp?z=y&EAN=805520090384&itm=2 A First-Time Buyer's Guide to American Negro Spirituals, Music CD - Barnes & Noble ] at music.barnesandnoble.com] which demonstrates that it was not unique to his performance of "Ol' Man River".

Bledsoe was also actually filmed singing the song - his rendition of it was included in the sound prologue to the part-talkie 1929 film version of "Show Boat".

In November, 1933, Billie Holiday made her first record as vocalist for Benny Goodman's studio orchestra doing a fairly popular song "Your Mother's Son-In-Law", written by Nichols and Holiner for Lew Leslie's "Blackbirds of 1934". In the song, there is a reference to Bledsoe - "You don't have to sing like Bledsoe. You can tell the world I said so.".


*"The Music of Black Americans: A History". Eileen Southern. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition. ISBN 0-393-97141-4

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