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Jolson, Al

Al Jolson

Singer, actor

Blackface More a Mask Than Racism

Popularity Dimmed by Radio

Comparisons to Elvis Presley

Selected discography

Sources

Al Jolson was the foremost popular singer of the first three decades of the twentieth century. He flourished just before the era of radio and sound film, media that somewhat dented his popularitythough it was he who starred in The Jazz Singer, the first of the talkies. Jolson was a supreme artist of the musical stage, with a personal magnetism and a power over audiences that his contemporaries could hardly find words to describe. A driven man with an overwhelming need for approval from the public, he became one of the greatest of the all-American success stories.

The age of electronic media in which we live has almost forgotten Jolson. Much of his material seems stilted today, and he worked in a genrethe blackface minstrel revuethat by the 1980s and 90s had become widely perceived as a vehicle for crude racial stereotyping. His distinctive vocal style, shaped by the necessity of projecting the voice unaided by electric microphones to a large audience, seems artificial to many modern hearers. Yet Jolsons impact in his own time was so great that traces of it continue to surface.

The most importantexcept perhaps for Irving Berlinof the Eastern European immigrants who inaugurated a long period of Jewish influence in the American entertainment industry, Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in the small Lithuanian town of Seredzius, in 1886 (according to most sources). The family sailed for America in 1894 and settled in Washington, D.C. Jolsons mother, Naomi, died the following year; according to biographer Herbert G. Goldman, the trauma of her death shaped Jolsons entire career, making him crave the love of audiences and influencing his eventual attachment to and success with the genre of the sentimental blackface mammy song. Jolsons father was a rabbi, but Jolson and his brother Harry were drawn to secular entertainment, and, in an age when it was still possible to run away and join the theater, they did just that.

Blackface More a Mask Than Racism

Jolson began to work his way up through the world of touring musical comedies and vaudeville revues that were the backbone of popular music at the turn of the century, first applying burnt cork to his face in 1904 at the suggestion of a New York comedian who told him it would make him really feel like a performer. Although Jolson went on to develop stock stage characters that fell clearly within the traditions of blackface minstrelsy, some critics have suggested that he used blackface more as a theatrical mask than as an expression of racial prejudice. He was never really comfortable performing without it. Jolson began to see his name in lights when he was hired in 1911 by impresario J. J.

For the Record

Born Asa Yoelson, May 26, 1886, in Seredzius, Lithuania; died of heart failure, October 23, 1950, in San Francisco, CA; immigrated to U.S., 1894; mother was named Naomi; father was a rabbi; married four times; children: Albert P. Lowe.

Popular vocalist; star of musical comedy, vaudeville, film, and radio, 1899-1950; appeared at Winter Garden Theatre, New York City, 1911; toured widely, 1911-1927; appeared in film The Jazz Singer, 1927; appeared in films and performed on radio and stage, 1927-39; entertained American troops during World War II, 1942-43, and Korean War; dubbed voice-overs for The Jolson Story, 1946, and Jolson Sings Again, 1949.

Shubert for an engagement at the prestigious Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. Over the next 15 years he introduced most of the songs for which he remains famous: California, Here I Come, Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody, George Gershwins Swanee, and My Mammy. By 1920 Jolson was without question the biggest star in the country.

As such, he was eagerly sought by Hollywoods growing movie studios. But, although he came close to making a film with silent-movie legend D. W. Griffith, various projects fell through, and Jolson made only a few short silent films before agreeing to star in The Jazz Singer, in 1927. The soundtrack of this first sound film featured Jolsonin blackface, as he would be in all except one of his subsequent dozen filmssinging My Mammy and Irving Berlins Blue Skies. Also significant was that the movies story, which concerned a Jewish singers efforts to become a Broadway star despite his cantor fathers disapproval, paralleled events in Jolsons own life. The Jazz Singer was an unprecedented success and raised Jolsons star even higher.

Popularity Dimmed by Radio

Jolson continued to make movies, including the interesting Depression-era Hallelujah, Im a Bum, which popularized the song of the same name. He also performed regularly on radio. But Jolson needed that connection possible only in front of a live audience to work his magic, and his popularity suffered in the increasingly radio-dominated 1930s. It was revived, significantly, when Jolson entered another well-publicized venue of live performancetouring the world during World War II to appear before American military units. These performances rekindled public interest in Jolsons music in the late 1940s, and two films were released based on the entertainers life, The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, with Jolsons still powerful singing voice dubbed over the screen appearance of actor Larry Parks. Jolson also entertained American troops during the Korean War. He died of heart failure in a San Francisco hotel room on October 23, 1950.

Those who saw Jolson in his prime describe his effect on audiences in the strongest possible terms. The usually acid critic Robert Benchley wrote in Life magazine, [To] sit and feel the lift of Jolsons personality is to know what the coiners of the word personality meant. The word isnt quite strong enough for the thing that Jolson has. Unimpressive as the comparison may be to Mr. Jolson, we should say that John the Baptist was the last man to possess such a power. Jolson made himself one with audiences, leaving them ecstatic. He ad-libbed comic material and improvised vocally on the music he sang, striving to address viewers in a deeply personal way. He was given to jumping down into the aisles of the theater; even during his early days at the Winter Garden, the proprietors installed long ramps that let him come face to face with as much of the audience as possible.

Comparisons to Elvis Presley

Possibly the best way for modern music lovers to get a glimpse of what Jolson was like in person is to consider the cover version of his Are You Lonesome Tonight?, recorded in 1960 by the musically omnivorous Elvis Presley, whose personal charisma has been compared by some to Jolsons. The stilted but highly emotional quasi-Shakespearean dialogue passage, exaggerated romanticism, and semi-operatic but rhythmically free singing on Presleys rendition all stem directly from Jolsons performance, and all typified the early entertainers stage personality.

The comparison between Jolson and Presley may be fruitful in another way as wellin the area of musical repertoire. Both singers took up hackneyed, nearly antiquated stylesblackface sentimentality in Jolsons case, aging country and pop material in Presleysand mixed with those styles an explosive vocal energy derived from contemporary forms of African-American singing. Jolsons upbeat numbers crackled with the syncopations of ragtime, and his rhythmic freedom and ability to improvise vocally aided him in embracing his audience. Perhaps Jolson was something of a jazz singer, though modern jazz scholars tend to reject any association of Jolsons popular stylings with the fiery young art of trumpeter-vocalist Louis Armstrong and pianist Earl Fatha Hines.

Few Americans under the age of 50 know Jolson as much more than a name. Yet reminders of his significance have continued past Presleys recording; in 1980, contemporary vocal star Neil Diamond, himself a Jew, was drawn by the theme of Americanization in The Jazz Singer and starred in a successful remake of the original. In Diamonds version, the song that wins over the singers reluctant rabbi father to his sons secular singing career is a nationwide TV performance of My Country Tis of Thee. Much-beloved singer-actor Mandy Pantinkin borrows heavily from Jolson in style and repertoire in his one-man shows, at one point during which he also mounts a full-scale Jolson imitation. And 1990 even saw the release of an album of Jolson covers, entitled Blackface in Bondage, by a heavy metal band called the Slappin Mammys. Clearly, Jolson managed to work his way into the American collective memory for good.

Selected discography

The First Recordings, 1911-1916: You Made Me Love You, Stash, 1993.

Brunswick Rarities (recorded 1926-30), MCA.

Alexanders Ragtime Band (recorded 1938), Vintage Jazz Classics.

Best of the Decca Years (recorded late 1940s), MCA, 1992.

Best of Al Jolson, MCA, 1962.

The Salesman of Song, Pearl, 1992.

You Aint Heard Nothin Yet, ASV Living Era, 1992.

Stage Highlights, Pearl.

Mammy, Pro Arte.

My Mammy, MCA Special Products.

On the Silver Screen, Sandy Hook.

(Various artists) Jolson Sang Em 1918-31, Biograph.

Sources

Books

Goldman, Herbert G., Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life, Oxford University Press, 1988.

McCelland, Doug, Blackface to Blacklist: Al Jolson, Larry Parks, and The Jolson Story, Scarecrow, 1987.

Pleasants, Henry, The Great American Popular Singers, Simon & Schuster, 1974.

Periodicals

Life, November 6, 1950.

New York Times, October 24, 1950.

Time, October 30, 1950.

Village Voice, January 7, 1981.

James M. Manheim

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Al Jolson

Al Jolson

Al Jolson (1886-1950) was a vaudeville, theater, and radio singing performer and a film actor.

Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson) was born on May 6, 1886, in Srednike, Lithuania. Jolson's family immigrated to the United States in 1894. Several factors in Jolson's youth were to influence his career, including his religious Jewish upbringing, the death of his mother when he was ten, and his father's tradition-steeped profession of cantor. Jolson may have acquired a love of singing from his father, but he did not want to use his voice in the synagogue. Instead, he and his brother Harry sang on street corners to earn money. Jolson also attended the theater whenever possible and discovered a deep desire to become a performer.

In 1900 Jolson left Washington, D.C., for New York. His first job on the stage was in Israel Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto, in which he played one of the mob. He also sang in a circus sideshow and finally teamed up with his brother to play vaudeville. They toured as Jolson/Palmer/ Jolson (Palmer, a paraplegic, was the third member of the team) with an act called The Hebrew and the Cadet. At first Al Jolson played the straight man to his brother's comic Jewish man, but eventually Harry Jolson and Palmer took over the comedy and Al Jolson sang. Jolson was best on the stage when he was alone, when he could be spontaneous and not under the pressure of delivering lines. In this manner he could really relate to the audience he loved so much to please.

In order to develop his singing abilities Jolson left his brother's group and spent several years in San Francisco playing in small clubs. One day he decided he must liven up his act, and he went on stage in blackface and sang "Rosey My Posey" in Southern style. The makeup and his unique musical interpretation brought a sensitivity to the act that elicited three encores from the audience. Al Jolson's style was born.

In 1909 he was given a job as one of the minstrels in Dockstader's Minstrel Show, a successful touring production. It was here that Arthur Klein, who became his agent, spotted Jolson and convinced the powerful Broadway producer, Lee Shubert, to put him in his new show, La Belle Paree (1911). On March 20, 1911, the blackface singer went on stage and sang "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad." He was an instant hit. Jolson's singing and stage manner were different from anything the audience had seen. He took a song and applied to it a loose jazz/ragtime rhythm (this type of music had not yet been popularized). He wore blackface and rolled his eyes with a mischievous grin on his face. He also appealed to the emotions of the audience with his sentimental song deliveries interpolated with ad libbed dialogue.

Although Jolson did not receive star billing until 1914 in Dancing Around, the audiences clearly came to see him. The Shuberts knew this and signed Jolson for a seven year contract at the Winter Garden on Broadway. He played to overflowing houses in such shows as Vera Violetta (1911), The Honeymoon Express (1913), Robinson Crusoe, Jr. (1916), Sinbad (1918), and Bombo (1921). In most of these Jolson had no set script and no scheduled list of songs. He would come out on stage after the final act and talk to the audience and sing what pleased him. After each song he delighted the audiences with his standard retort, "You ain't heard nothing yet."

Jolson's renditions of songs were sung by people throughout the country, and he became known for songs like "Sonny Boy," "Swanee" (with this song Jolson introduced the composer George Gershwin), and most particularly "My Mammy." In "Mammy" the performer would go down on one knee with his hands in front of him as if in prayer. With tears in his eyes he would speak to "mother," telling her he'd "walk a million miles" just to see her. At the end he would get up and sing the last chorus with his hands spread wide and his face tilted upwards. After he introduced this song he was billed as "the greatest entertainer of all time." To his adoring audiences this was the truth.

Jolson's intense need to be constantly at work led him to do a six week tour of his own one-man show, in which he established the format for solo performance; then a vaudeville tour; a Sunday theater series for performers; and finally—Hollywood. On October 6, 1927, Warner Brothers presented the world's first talking-picture feature, The Jazz Singer. The story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the rabbi's son who turned actor against the wishes of his father, became a sensation and remains a motion picture classic. It starred Al Jolson. People came to associate the movie with Jolson's own life, a myth that he encouraged and had even contributed to early in his career with songs like "Mammy." This myth of the lonely man who had given up everything for the public was necessary for him—it was indeed reflected in his need for the audience's love.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of this film and its sequel, The Singing Fool (1928), Jolson did not succeed in film. He made several films afterwards, but his ultimate gift was his personal appeal to an audience. He was too big for the camera and could not convey his personality by way of screen. His career, in general, declined in the 1930s— sentimentality was out and the audiences sought after a different type of singing.

Jolson filled his time by performing on radio and entertaining the troops in World War II. (He also did this in the early days of the Korean War.) He was a politically involved man, and he campaigned for several presidents by singing at rallies.

In 1946 Columbia Pictures presented The Al Jolson Story, in which Larry Parks impersonated Jolson and Jolson sang. The film was a fantasized version of his life and an immediate success. In 1949 they presented a sequel, Jolson Sings Again, another smash hit. These films not only brought the singer's career back to its heights but also immortalized this unique performer.

Jolson was married four times (his third wife was the actress Ruby Keeler), and he had three children. Al Jolson died of heart failure on October 24, 1950, the night before a planned radio taping with Bing Crosby.

Further Reading

Al Jolson: You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet! by Robert Ober-first (1980) is a biography/dramatization of the central aspects of Jolson's work and personal life, with pictures. Jolson is listed in Who's Who In The Theatre (1939), edited by John Parker, and in Famous Actors and Actresses on the American Stage, Volume I (1975), by William C. Young. The latter book includes reviews of his work. Recordings of Al Jolson's songs and performances are still available. □

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Jolson, Al

Al Jolson

Born: May 26, 1886 Srednike, Lithuania Died: October 23, 1950 San Francisco, California Lithuanian-born American entertainer, vaudeville performer, actor, and singer

Al Jolson was a famous singer and film actor. He starred in the first all-sound movie, The Jazz Singer.

Early life

Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson) was born on May 26, 1886, in Srednike, Lithuania. Jolson's family came to the United States in 1894, settling in Washington, D.C. Several factors in Jolson's youth influenced his career, including his religious Jewish upbringing, the death of his mother when he was ten, and his father's work as a cantor (a singer of religious music in a synagogue). Jolson acquired a love of singing from his father, but he did not want to use his voice in the synagogue. Instead, he and his brother Harry sang on street corners to earn money. Jolson also attended the theater whenever possible and discovered he loved to perform.

Develops his own style

In 1900 Jolson left Washington, D.C., for New York. His first theater job was in a show called Children of the Ghetto. He also sang in a circus before teaming up with his brother to play vaudeville (traveling stage entertainment consisting of various acts). They toured as Jolson/Palmer/Jolson (Palmer was the third member of the team) with an act called The Hebrew and the Cadet, in which Harry Jolson and Palmer did a comedy routine and Al Jolson sang. Jolson was best when he was alone on stage, where he could more easily relate to the audience.

Jolson then left his brother's act and spent several years playing small clubs in San Francisco, California. One day, to liven up his act, he went on stage in blackface (with his face made up to resemble an African American) and sang "Rosey My Posey" in a Southern accent. In 1909 he was given a job in producer Lew Dockstader's Minstrel Show, and in 1911 he was hired for Broadway producer Lee Shubert's new show, La Belle Paree (1911), in which he sang "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad." Jolson's singing and stage manner were different from anything the audience had seen. He took a song and applied to it a loose jazz rhythm, rolling his eyes with a sly grin on his blackened face. He also appealed to the feelings of the audience with his sentimental song deliveries.

Star power

Although Jolson did not receive star billing until 1914 in Dancing Around, the audiences clearly came to see him. The Shuberts knew this and signed Jolson for a seven-year contract at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. He played to overflowing houses in such shows as Robinson Crusoe, Jr. (1916), Sinbad (1918), and Bombo (1921). Most of these shows had no script and no scheduled list of songs. Jolson would come out on stage after the final act to talk to the audience and sing what pleased him. After each song he told the audiences, "You ain't heard nothing yet."

Jolson became known for songs like "Sonny Boy," composer George Gershwin's (18981937) "Swanee," and especially "My Mammy." In "Mammy" he would go down on one knee, and with tears in his eyes he would speak to "mother," telling her he'd "walk a million miles" just to see her. At the end he would get up and sing the last chorus with his hands spread wide and his face tilted upward.

Goes to Hollywood

Jolson worked constantly, doing a tour of his one-man show, then a vaudeville tour, and then a Sunday theater series. Finally he went to Hollywood to make movies. In October 1927 Warner Brothers presented the world's first talking-picture feature, The Jazz Singer. The film, the story of a rabbi's son who becomes an actor against his father's wishes, was a great success. People assumed the movie was based on Jolson's own life, a myth that he encouraged.

Despite the popularity of the film and its follow-up, The Singing Fool (1928), Jolson did not succeed in film. He made several more films, but his personal appeal to an audience never really came through on the screen. His career declined in the 1930s, but he continued to perform on radio and entertained soldiers during World War II (193945; a war fought mostly in Europe between the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union on one side, and Germany, Italy, and Japan on the other). He also campaigned for several presidents by singing at rallies. In 1946 The Al Jolson Story, a fictional version of his life, was released and was an immediate success. In 1949 Jolson Sings Again, another smash hit, was released.

Jolson was married four times, and he had three children. He died of heart failure on October 23, 1950, the night before a planned radio taping with actor/singer Bing Crosby (19041977).

For More Information

Freedland, Michael. Jolson. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.

Goldman, Herbert G. Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Oberfirst, Robert. Al Jolson: You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet! San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1980.

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Jolson, Al

Al Jolson (jōl´sən), 1888–1950, American entertainer, whose original name was Asa Yoelson, b. Russia. He emigrated to the United States c.1895. The son of a rabbi, Jolson first planned to become a cantor but soon turned to the stage. After his New York City debut in 1899, he worked in circuses, in minstrel shows, and in vaudeville; in 1909 in San Francisco he first sang "Mammy" in black face, and his style brought him fame and many imitators. The first of his many Broadway appearances was in La Belle Paree (1911); his film work began with The Jazz Singer (1927), the first major film with sound and a landmark in the history of motion pictures. After 1932 he had his own radio show. Among the songs he made famous were "April Showers," "Swanee," "Sonny-Boy," and "Mammy."

See H. Jolson, Mistah Jolson (1951); M. Freedland, Jolson (1972).

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Jolson, Al

Jolson, Al (1886–1950) US music hall singer, remembered for his sentimental renditions of “Swanee” and “Mammy”. He starred in the first ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer (1927).

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