Julius “Old Man River” Bledsoe Harlem NY 1920’s (video)

April 3, 2016

A critic from the New York Morning Telegraph described him as "a singer who can pick the heart right out of your body—if you don’t look out."Jules Bledsoe 1897–1943, was a baritone from Waco, Texas and one of the first African-American opera stars to perform in the United States who moved to Harlem in the 1920’s.

Jules Bledsoe was born Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe to Henry L. and Jessie Cobb Bledsoe in Waco, Texas in 1897. When Bledsoe’s parents split in 1899, Julius went with his mother to live with the Cobb family. During his youth Bledsoe attended Central Texas Academy from 1905 to 1914. After graduating as valedictorian he studied at Bishop College where he earned his B.A. in 1918. He then attended Virginia Union College from 1918 to 1919, where he was a member of ROTC.
Jules Bledsoe in Harlem

In 1920 he moved  to Harlem and took voice lessons while attending Columbia University, where he studied medicine from 1920 to 1924. Throughout his time in school, he studied music under Claude Warford, Luigi Parisotti, and Lazar Samoiloff.

Bledsoe made his professional singing debut in New York’s Aeolian Hall on April 20, 1924 with the sponsorship of impresario Sol Hurok. Over the course of his career he traveled throughout the United States and Europe performing, acting, and writing.

Bledsoe performed in many major operas and was in high demand due to his ability to sing in multiple languages as a well as his impressive vocal range. In 1926 he appeared as Tizan in Frank Harling’s opera Deep River, and he was the first to perform as Joe in Jerome Kern and Harlem’s Oscar Hammerstein II‘s Show Boat in 1927. His role in Show Boat became his best known role, and he popularized “Ol’ Man River”, a song from the musical. A critic from the New York Morning Telegraph described him as “a singer who can pick the heart right out of your body—if you don’t look out.”

In the Chicago Opera’s production of Verdi’s Aida, Bledsoe sang the role of Amonasro. In 1930, Bledsoe attempted to create an original musical setting of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, but he lacked the permission of the playwright which was already secured by composer Louis Gruenberg.

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.

Here’s Pathe Films video of Bledso singing:

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The Baylor College Blog reports that during the height of his popularity, in November, 1933, Billie Holiday made her first record as vocalist for Benny Goodman’s studio orchestra doing the 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 Jules — “You don’t have to sing like Bledsoe. You can tell the world I said so.” Though the honor went to Lawrence Tibbett to originate the title role in 1933, Bledsoe played the characte in a production in Amsterdam in 1934, and later in Paris, Vienna, Brussels and London, and still later in New York. Bledsoe also performed the title character in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

Bledsoe’s only recording of Ol’ Man River, which he sang in the original production of Show Boat premiered at the Ziegfield Theater, 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 three-disc EMI album), and Michel Bell (in the Harold Prince revival of the show), is somewhat 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 style, 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 Show Boat (1929 film version).

Bledsoe sang with the BBC Symphony in London in 1936, and the next year with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.

Bledsoe wrote several song and wrote a full opera, Bondage, in 1939.

Between 1929 and 1930, Bledsoe appeared in three musical film Shorts – Old Man Trouble, On the Levee, and Dear Old Southland. He spent 1940 and 1941 working in Hollywood, and is credited with the part of Kalu in Drums of the Congo, and speculated to have acted in Safari, Western Union and Santa Fe Trail.

Bledsoe died in Hollywood, California, on July 14, 1943. His papers, including sheet music, photographs, and correspondence, are housed in The Texas Collection at Baylor University.

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