Julius “Jules” Bledsoe’s extraordinary musical talent transcended racial discrimination of the nineteenth century and established him as a pioneer in American music.
Bledsoe was born on December 29, 1897, to Henry and Jessie Bledsoe in Waco. Even as a young child, he loved to sing. Bledsoe first performed publically at the age of five at New Hope Baptist Church, a church founded by his grandfather in 1866. In 1914, Bledsoe graduated from Central Texas Academy as valedictorian, and travelled to Marshall, Texas, to study liberal arts and music at Bishop College. After graduating magna cum laude in 1918, Bledsoe served as a civilian chaplain for an ROTC program at Virginia Union University in Richmond from 1918 to 1919.
In 1920, Bledsoe began his graduate study of medicine at Columbia University. After taking voice lessons with notable musicians such as Claude Warford, Luigi Parisotti, and Lazar Samoiloff, however, his career plans began to shift. He made his professional music debut on April 20, 1924, in the Aeolian Hall in mid-town Manhattan. Sol Hurok, a twentieth-century American impresario, sponsored Bledsoe’s first performance. Over the next several years, Bledsoe performed in various capacities around the city. He received his first leading role in an opera in 1926, when he performed the baritone role of Tizan in Deep River. Following one of Bledsoe’s New York performances, a critic from the New York Morning Telegraph praised Bledsoe as the star of the cast who could “pick the heart right out of anybody.”
Yet it was Bledsoe’s portrayal of Joe in a 1927 production of Jerome Kern's Showboat which launched him into the spotlight. His interpretation of the tune “Ol’ Man River” became a classic in American music. He later starred in the 1929 film production of Showboat as well. Bledsoe quickly earned international renown. He performed both in the United States and in Europe, and was praised for his command of several languages, his impressive vocal range and control, and a power to communicate ideas and emotions through music.
During this time, racial discrimination prevented African Americans from performing with major opera companies. Yet Bledsoe’s talent and renown earned him the right to perform with distinguished organizations such as the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the BBC Symphony in London, the Royal-Dutch Italian Opera Company, and the Cosmopolitan Opera Association in New York.
Bledsoe did not confine his career solely to the performance of music, but also composed many pieces. He wrote several spirituals and patriotic songs, such as “Pagan Prayer” and “Ode to America.” The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam performed his African Suite, a set of four songs for voice and opera. Bledsoe also composed an opera titled Bondage in 1939, based upon Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Bledsoe moved to Los Angeles in 1940 in order to continue his vocal training, as well as to star in several films such as Drums of the Congo, Santa Fe Trail, and Western Union. Bledsoe set out on another tour in 1943 to promote the sale of war bonds. Accompanied for a portion of his trip by Eleanor Roosevelt, Bledsoe performed before large crowds, often offering several encores at each performance. Tragically, he passed away on this tour on July 14, 1943, from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Attended by family, friends, New Hope Baptist Church members, and distinguished speakers A. J. Armstrong of Baylor University and Bishop College President J. J. Rhoades, Bledsoe’s funeral in Waco served as a testament to his incomparable ability to transcend division and communicate through music.