Pt. Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi was born in a Madhwa Brahmin family in a town called Gadag, in the Gadag district of present-day Karnataka state on 4 February 1922 to Gururaj Joshi (who had authored a Kannada-English dictionary) and Godavaribai, a home-maker. Bhimsen was the eldest among 16 siblings. He lost his mother at a young age and was raised by his stepmother.
Joshi heard a recording of Abdul Karim Khan's Thumri "Piya Bin Nahi Aavat Chain" in Raga Jhinjhoti when he was a child, which inspired him to become a musician. During this time, he also heard Pandit Sawai Gandharva at a performance in Kundgol. In 1933, the 11-year-old Joshi left Dharwad for Bijapur to find a master and learn music. With the help of money lent by his co-passengers in the train, Bhimsen reached Dharwad first and later went to Pune. Later he moved to Gwalior and got into Madhava Music School, a school run by Maharajas of Gwalior, with the help of famous sarod player Hafiz Ali Khan. He travelled for three years around North India, including in Delhi, Kolkata, Gwalior, Lucknow and Rampur, trying to find a good guru. Eventually, his Father succeeded in tracking him down in Jalandar and brought young Bhimsen back home.
In 1936, Sawai Gandharva, a native of Dharwad, agreed to be his guru. Joshi stayed at his house in the guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition. Joshi continued his training with Sawai Gandharva
Joshi first performed live in 1941 at the age 19. His debut album, containing a few devotional songs in Marathi and Hindi, was released by HMV the next year in 1942. Later Joshi moved to Mumbai in 1943 and worked as a radio Artist. His performance at a concert in 1946 to celebrate his guru Sawai Gandharva's 60th birthday won him accolades both from the audience and his guru.
Bhimsen married twice. His first wife was Sunanda Katti, the daughter of his maternal uncle, whom he married in 1944. He had four children from Sunanda; Raghavendra, Usha, Sumangala, and Anand. In 1951, he married Vatsala Mudholkar, his co-actor in the Kannada play Bhagya-Shree. Bigamous marriages among Hindus were prohibited by law in the Bombay Presidency; so he took up residency in Nagpur (capital of Central Province and Berar in 1951) where bigamy was allowed and married there for the second time. He did not divorce or separate from Sunanda. With Vatsala, he had three children; Jayant, Shubhada, and Shrinivas Joshi. Initially, both his wives and families lived together, but when this did not work out, his first wife moved out with the family to live in a rented house in Limayewadi in Sadashiv Peth, Pune, where Bhimsen continued to visit them.
A classicist by training, and temperament, Bhimsen Joshi was renowned for having evolved an approach that sought to achieve a balance between what may be termed as "traditional values and mass-culture tastes" and as such he went on to have supposedly the largest commercially recorded repertoire in Hindustani vocal music. Pt. Joshi's iconic status in the music world has earned him a whole generation of suni shagirds who by merely listening to him have picked up his style and not through any formal tutelage. His greatest endeavour in perpetuating his legacy could be the Sawai Gandharva Festival held at Pune annually since the year 1953 which seeks to promote a certain music culture.
Joshi sang for several films, including Basant Bahar (1956) with Manna Dey, in Marathi movie "Swayamvar zale Siteche" (1964) for famous song "Ramya Hi Swargahun lanka", in Kannada movie Sandhya Raga (1966) where he has sung extensively. it includes a song "e pariya sobagu" rendered in both Hindustani and Carnatic (Karnataka shastriya sangeetha) styles along with M.Balamuralikrishna,Birbal My Brother (1973) with Pandit Jasraj. He also sang for the Bengali film Tansen (1958) and Bollywood Movie Ankahee (1985) where latter fetched him National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer. His song 'Bhagyadalakshmi baaramma', a Purandara Dasa composition, was used by Anant Nag and Shankar Nag in the Kannada film Nodi Swami Naavu Irodhu Heege. He also sang as a playback singer for the Marathi film Gulacha Ganapati, produced and directed by P. L. Deshpande
Pt. Bhimsen Joshi was widely recognised in India due to his performance in the Mile Sur Mera Tumhara music video (1988), which begins with him. The video was created for the purpose of national integration in India, and highlights the diversity of Indian culture. Pt. Bhimsen Joshi was also a part of Jana Gana Mana produced by A. R. Rahman on the occasion of 50th year of Indian Republic.
In 1998, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, the highest honour conferred by Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama. Subsequently, he received the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour, in 2009.
Joshi was admitted to Sahyadri Super Speciality Hospital on 31 December 2010 with gastrointestinal bleeding and bilateral pneumonia. Due to difficulty in breathing, he was put on ventilator support. He suffered convulsions and was put on dialysis too during his stay in hospital. Though he recovered briefly for three days when he was taken off the ventilator, his condition deteriorated thereafter. He died on 24 January 2011 . He was cremated at Vaikunth Crematorium in Pune with full state honours.