Jules Bledsoe’s voice still rings
By: Lynnette Geary
Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe, born in Waco on Dec. 29,1897, was a remarkable personality whose talent distinguished him as a pioneer in American music.
The only son of Henry and Jessie Cobb Bledsoe, and the grandson of Stephen and Feriba Cobb, Bledsoe made his debut as a singer at 5 at New Hope Baptist Church, founded by his grandfather in 1866.
His performance of "Stay in Your Own Backyard" proved to be an ironic beginning to a versatile career that took him all over the world.
Bledsoe graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1914 from Central Texas Academy, and studied liberal arts and music at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, where he graduated magna cum laude in May 1918.
He served in the Civilian Chaplain Service and the ROTC in Virginia, and then moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he worked as a freelance musician.
In 1920 he began to study medicine at Columbia University, but his mother’s death that summer brought him to a crossroads for his life’s direction, and he decided to become a professional musician.
After training with Claude Warford, Luigi Parisotti, and Lazar Samoiloff, Bledsoe made his professional debut on April 20, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York.
He spent a glorious two years performing in various venues in New York. He sang the role of Tizan in the opera Deep River at the Imperial Theater. He performed the premiere of Louis Gruenberg’s The Creation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky in Town Hall. And he performed as Abraham in Paul Green’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play In Abraham’s Bosom.
A review by Theodore Stearn of Deep River in the New York Morning Telegraph summarizes, even at this early stage, the essence of Bledsoe ’s career:
"The singing star of the cast, however, is Julius Bledsoe . "He is a singer who can pick the heart right out of your body — if you don’t look out."
Bledsoe is best known for his performance as Joe in the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II musical Show Boat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber.
Show Boat opened in New York at the Ziegfeld Theater on Dec. 27, 1927 and ran for 572 performances.
The show’s theme song, "Ol’ Man River," became so closely identified with Bledsoe that by 1932 he had sung it over 20,000 times.
This role, in turn, advanced his position as a performing artist.
Bledsoe performed at Carnegie Hall in April 1931, prior to a concert tour in Europe including performances in London, Paris, The Hague, and Amsterdam.
At a time when blacks were excluded from major opera companies, he performed the role of Amonasro in Aida with the Royal Dutch-Italian Opera Company, the Cleveland Stadium Opera Company (a summer opera troupe), Alfredo Salmaggi’s Chicago Opera Company at the Hippodrome in New York (not associated with the Chicago Opera Company), and the Cosmopolitan Opera Association in New York. Another prominent role was that of Brutus in the European premier in The Netherlands of Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones, in 1934.
He toured with the Blackbirds of 1936 vaudeville show in England, sang with the prestigious Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam for the 1937-38 season and sang at Town Hall in New York, 1940.
Bledsoe moved to Los Angeles in 1940 to train again with Lazar Samoiloff and to pursue work on the concert stage and in film.
In 1940 and 1941 he appeared in the movies Drums of the Congo, Safari, Santa Fe Trail, and Western Union.
Very active in performing concerts for the war effort, he had hardly established himself as a performing artist in California when he died from a cerebral hemorrhage on July 14, 1943.
His aunt Naomi Ruth Cobb, a constant source of support throughout his life, nursed him during the last week of his life.
His funeral in Waco, July 21, 1943, at New Hope Baptist Church, brought him full circle to his beginning as a boy singer.
Distinguished speakers for the service included A. J. Armstrong, chair of the English department at Baylor University and J. J. Rhoades, president of Bishop College in Marshall.
Bledsoe was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Waco.His tombstone is inscribed with the final bar of music from his own arrangement of "Ol’ Man River" and the words "He just keeps rollin’ along." (The treble clef on the stone is incorrect; it should be a bass clef.)
Both professionally and personally, he lived his life well and in accordance with his philosophy: "In order not to pass out of this world forgotten in a few years . . . do some unselfish good . . . It does not take genius or fame or fortune . . . all it requires is a good heart and kindly spirit."
Lynnette Geary is assistant to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Baylor University.
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