If you know the name Jules Bledsoe at all, you probably know him as the African American baritone who originated the song “Old Man River” from the original production of the legendary musical Show Boat on Broadway. Bledsoe was a popular singer in pre-World War II America, despite the ferocious racism of his day. He was the first black man to appear in a national production of a grand opera. He was in great demand abroad, singing with the major opera companies and symphony orchestras of Europe. He was a composer. He even acted in a couple of pretty bad movies.
But for my research into the influence of black sacred music on the Civil Rights Movement, I’m most interested in Bledsoe as a crusader. I’ve found that he performed numerous benefits for the NAACP, spoke out against racism while appearing on many national national radio shows (often with Eleanor Roosevelt), and once defended his counterpart, Paul Robeson, from those who were slandering him.
Bledsoe, who never married, died in 1943.
And, oh yeah, he was born in Waco, Texas and spent his first 18 years here. He’s buried in Greenwood Cemetery in East Waco, with a tombstone that says, “Old Man River.”
P.S. One last note on Jules. 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.”