Jolson, Al (originally, Yoelson, Asa)

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Jolson, Al (originally, Yoelson, Asa)

Jolson, Al (originally, Yoelson, Asa), extroverted Lithuanian-born American singer, actor, and comedian; b. Seredzius, May 26, 1886; d. San Francisco, Oct. 23, 1950. Unabashedly billed as the World’s Greatest Entertainer, Jolson was the most successful musical comedy star on Broadway in the 1910s and 1920s. He was also a major radio star and the most popular solo recording artist of the 1920s, his biggest hits being “Sonny Boy/’ “April Showers/’ and “Swanee,” though he popularized dozens of songs. He inaugurated sound motion pictures with The Jazz Singer and made a series of musical films. He enjoyed a spectacular career comeback in the years before his death, largely due to the film biographies The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again.Jolson’s use of blackface, dating from his early years in minstrel shows, and his bravura style made him a controversial figure. But his ability to move a live audience was unmatched.

Jolson was the son of Moshe Reuben Yoelson, a cantor and rabbi, and Naomi Cantor Yoelson; the date and year of his birth are uncertain. His father immigrated to the U.S. and the family followed several years later, arriving in April 1894 and settling in Washington, D.C. His mother died in childbirth in February 1895, and his father remarried in March 1896.

Jolson displayed an early interest in music and theater; he and his older brother Harry were street entertainers as early as the summer of 1896, singing to politicians in front of the Raleigh Hotel in Washington, D.C. In 1898 he entertained the troops assembled to fight the Spanish-American War in camps around the city. He ran away from home several times, working in a circus and a carnival. His first stage appearance was in a minor role in the play Children of the Ghetto in September 1899. From October 1900 to March 1902 he was a member of the Victoria Burlesquers, after which he toured in vaudeville and burlesque, usually as part of a song-and-comedy duo or trio, sometimes including his brother. By June 1906 he was working solo and appearing in blackface.

In October 1906, Jolson met dancer Henrietta Keller in her hometown of Oakland, Calif. They were married on Sept. 20, 1907, and divorced on July 8, 1920. In August 1908, Jolson joined Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels, the leading minstrel show of the day. He remained with the troupe until December 1909, then returned to solo work in vaudeville. He made his Broadway debut in LaBelle Parée (N.Y., March 20, 1911), which was part of the initial offering at the newly built Winter Garden Theater. Singing Jerome Kern and Edward Madden’s ’Taris Is a Paradise for Coons he became the hit of the show, which ran for 104 performances in N.Y., and went on a six-week tour in the fall. A Sunday night concert series at the Winter Garden was inaugurated on March 26, and Jolson appeared frequently, adding to his growing fame.

Jolson returned to the Winter Garden in Vera Violetta (N.Y., Nov. 20, 1911), taking a more prominent role, and the show was a success, running 112 performances. Signing with the Victor Talking Machine Co., he made his first issued recordings on Dec. 22, 1911. Among them was George M. Cohan’s ’That Haunting Melody/r from Vera Violetta, which became a major hit in May 1912. Vera Violetta was followed immediately by The Whirl of Society (N.Y., March 5, 1912), in which Jolson for the first time played the part of Gus, a comic African-American servant. It ran for 136 performances in N.Y, then toured from September to January 1913. His second major record hit came in July 1912 with the million-seller “Ragging the Baby to Sleep.”

Jolson’s fourth Broadway show was The Honeymoon Express (N.Y., Feb. 6, 1913), which ran for 156 performances at the Winter Garden and then toured the country from September to May 1914. Jolson had a second million- selling disc in May 1913 with “The Spaniard That Blighted My Life/’ which he sang in the show. He also interpolated James V. Monaco and Joseph McCarthy’s “You Made Me Love You” into the show and scored a massive hit with it in October, inaugurating a ten-year stint with Columbia Records.

Jolson’s next Winter Garden appearance came with Dancing Around (N.Y., Oct. 10, 1914), which ran for 145 performances in N.Y, then toured from February 1915 to December. Robinson Crusoe Jr. (N.Y., Feb. 17, 1916) ran for 139 performances in N.Y, then toured for the entire 1916-17 season and into the fall of 1917, not closing until Nov. 17. Jolson’s biggest record hit during the period was the comic “I Sent My Wife to the Thousand Islands” in September 1916, though he also enjoyed hits with songs featured in the show, such as “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula” and “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?”

Jolson’s seventh Winter Garden show was Sinbad (N.Y., Feb. 14, 1918), which ran for 164 performances in N.Y, then toured for three full seasons, not playing its final performance until June 25, 1921. As much as any of Jolson’s shows, it served largely as a vehicle for his comic singing act, and at times he simply dismissed the rest of the cast and gave a concert performance. The long run of the show found him interpolating a series of songs, many of which became signature numbers for him, though he also enjoyed record hits not related to Sinbad.

“I’m All Bound Round with the Mason Dixie Line” became a big hit in April 1918, followed by the topical “Hello, Central, Give Me No Man’s Land” in July. But Jolson’s biggest hit of the year came with the Sinbad song “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” an important song for him since it marked his success with a sentimental ballad rather than the comic songs for which he had been known. During the 1918-19 tour he interpolated the uptempo “I’ll Say She Does” into the show, and it became his next big record hit in August 1919, followed by “I’ve Got My Captain Working for Me Now” in January 1920. That month he recorded George Gershwin and Irving Caesar’s “Swanee” and began singing it in Sinbad.It became a giant record hit in May, his third million-seller and the most popular song of his career to that point. (It also helped to establish Gershwin as a major songwriter.)

In the fall season of 1920, Jolson introduced “Ava-lon” into the show and scored a hit with it in early 1921, though his biggest record hit of the period was “O-H-I-O (O-My! O!),” a best-seller in April. (”Avalon,” credited to Jolson and Vincent Rose, was the subject of a successful plagiarism suit brought by the publishers of Puccini’s opera losca, who claimed the melody was stolen from the aria “E lucevan le stelle.”) Jolson first sang “My Mammy,” the song perhaps most closely associated with him, on Jan. 13, 1921, in Providence, but strangely he did not record it at the time, allowing others to score hits with it.

Jolson returned to Broadway in Bombo (N.Y., Oct. 6, 1921), which opened in a theater named for him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre. After 218 performances in N.Y, it went on tour in April 1922 and stayed on the road for two years, until May 1924. The show’s initial hit, and the biggest record hit of 1922, was “April Showers,” though Jolson also enjoyed a hit with “Angel Child” in May. In the fall of 1922 he interpolated “Toot Toot Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” into the show, and it became a best-selling record in January 1923. The biggest hit interpolated into the show in the 1923-24 season was “California, Here I Come,” which became a record hit in May 1924, his first for his third record company, Brunswick. He also scored big hits with “I Wonder What’s Become of Sally?” in November 1924 and “All Alone” in January 1925. On June 9, 1919, he had met show girl Ethel Delmar (real name Alma Osborne). They married on July 22, 1922, and were divorced in October 1926.

Jolson’s ninth Broadway show was Big Boy (N.Y., Jan. 7, 1925). The singer was plagued by illness, and the show amassed only 48 N.Y performances, though it toured during the 1925-26 and 1926-27 seasons. His biggest record hits during the period, not featured in the show, were “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” in April 1926 and “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along” in October. That same month he was featured in a short film, Al Jolson in a Plantation Act, singing three songs with synchronized sound.

In the summer of 1927, Jolson filmed The Jazz Singer, the first full- length feature with sound, which opened on Oct. 6, 1927, and became a sensation, transforming the motion picture industry. His songs from the film, “Mother of Mine, I Still Have You,” “My Mammy,” and “Dirty Hands! Dirty Face!,” became record hits as well. His second sound film, The Singing Fool, which opened in September 1928, was an even bigger box office success than the first and featured the biggest record hit of his career, “Sonny Boy,” a best-seller starting in October that was the most popular recording of the year. Its flip side, “There’s a Rainbow Round My Shoulder/’ was another big hit. Also in 1928, Jolson met tap dancer Ruby (Ethel Hilda) Keeler (b. Aug. 25, 1909; d. Feb. 28, 1993). She became his third wife on Sept. 21. He made impromptu appearances in her starring vehicle, Show Girl (N.Y., July 2, 1929), singing to her from the audience during the show’s Ill-performance run. (His recording of “Liza/’ the song he sang, was a hit.)

Jolson’s career began to decline in the late 1920s, though he continued to work steadily in a variety of media. His third feature film, Say It with Songs, which opened Aug. 6, 1929, was unsuccessful, though it brought him record hits in “Little Pal” and “I’m in Seventh Heaven.” Mammy (March 26, 1930) and the film adaptation of Big Boy (Sept. 11, 1930) met the same fate.

Jolson returned to Broadway in The Wonder Bar (N.Y., March 17, 1931), which ran 86 performances in N.Y., and toured through the 1931-32 season. He launched the first of several radio shows, Presenting Al Jolson, on Nov. 14, 1932; it ran into February. The same month saw the release of Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, a movie musical with songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Critically and commercially unsuccessful at the time, it has since been praised as one of Jolson’s best films. He returned to radio in August 1933, taking over the Kraft Music Hall for the 1933-34 season. He also made a film version of Wonder Bar (Feb. 28, 1934). He then hosted the radio shows Shell Chateau (1935–36) and Café Trocadero (1936–39). Jolson’s next film was Go into Your Dance (May 2, 1935), in which he costarred with his wife, who had become a film star in her own right. Within days of the film’s opening, the couple adopted a son; they were divorced on Dec. 27, 1940.

Jolson made one more film as a leading actor, The Singing Kid (April 3, 1936), after which he was relegated to second billing in Rose of Washington Square (May 25, 1939), a thinly veiled film biography of Fanny Brice in which he played a character much like himself and sang some of his biggest hits; Hollywood Cavalcade (Oct. 13, 1939), in which he played himself re-creating a scene from The Jazz Singer; Swanee River (Dec. 26, 1939), a film biography of Stephen Foster, in which he played minstrel show leader E. P. Christy; and Rhapsody in Blue (June 27, 1945), a film biography of Gershwin in which he again played himself.

Jolson returned to Broadway for the last time in Hold On to Your Hats (N.Y., Sept. 11, 1940), a show with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by E. Y Harburg. After 158 performances in N.Y, it toured in the fall of 1941. With the U.S. entry into World War II, Jolson became a peripatetic entertainer of troops, traveling from base to base with a piano accompanist. He undertook a new radio series, Al Jolson, in the 1942-43 season, but by the summer he was back to entertaining troops in South America, Africa, and the Near East. Upon his return in the fall he was found to be suffering from malaria and pneumonia, but after a temporary recovery he was back on the road. He met Erie Chennault Galbraith (b. Dec. 1, 1923) an x-ray technician, at a hospital in Ark., in June 1944. She became his fourth wife on May 24, 1945, and they eventually adopted a son and daughter. Before that, he suffered a relapse in late 1944 and had part of his left lung removed in early 1945.

Shortly after the release of Rhapsody in Blue, Jolson signed a contract with Decca Records and made his first recordings in nearly 13 years, starting with “Swanee,” the song he sang in the film. Al JolsonVol. 1 became a chart-topping album in 1946. By this time he was involved in preparations for The Jolson Story (Oct. 10, 1946), starring Larry Parks with Jolson’s voice dubbed in, which became the sixth highest grossing film in U.S. history up to that point and set off a major Jolson comeback. His Decca recordings of “Anniversary Song” and “April Showers” became million-sellers in 1947. Al Jolson—Vol 2 became a #1 album in 1947, followed by Vol. 3 in 1948.

He returned as host of the Kraft Music Hall for the 1947-48 and 1948-49 seasons. Jolson Sings Again (Aug. 17, 1949), again starring Parks with Jolson’s singing, was a success at the box office, as was Decca’s identically titled album in the record stores. Jolson entertained the troops in his fourth war when he went to Korea in September 1950. His death from a heart attack prevented him from fulfilling a contract to work in television.

Jolson is credited as cowriter of many of the songs he sang, including the hits “I’ll Say She Does,” “California, Here I Come,” “Me and My Shadow,” “Golden Gate,” “Sonny Boy,” “There’s a Rainbow Round My Shoulder,” and “Anniversary Song.” It is generally assumed that his actual creative involvement was limited to the suggestion of an idea, a title, or a few words of the lyrics at best, and that his songwriting credit was assigned in payment for his willingness to popularize the songs.

Though the more relaxed crooning style of microphone singing that became popular in the 1930s was at odds with Jolson’s demonstrative style, he became a major influence on the next generation of popular singers in the 1950s, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Frankie Laine, and Sammy Davis Jr., who took a more aggressive approach. He was also an influence on such rock ’n’ roll singers as Jerry Lee Lewis, who adopted his swagger (if little of his humor), and on such expressive 1960s pop singers as Tom Jones and Barbra Streisand.

It has been suggested that Jolson could only really be appreciated as a live performer, but his recordings, tapes of his radio shows, and the performance segments of his films testify to his enormous talent as an entertainer. His reputation doubtless would be greater if he were not so closely identified with blackface minstrelsy, which became a defining style in his work. (He appears in blackface in most of his films, many of which have not yet been released on videotape.) Blackface was popular when Jolson started out, and though his use of it reflected sympathy with African-Americans and was relatively free of stereotyping, the practice necessarily fell into ridicule in the wake of the civil rights advances of the post-World War II era, and Jolson’s standing as a popular singer suffered. Still, many of the songs he popularized have become standards, and his enthusiastic and informal approach to performing has set high standards for his successors.


P. Sieben, The Immortal/.: His Life and Times (N.Y., 1962); M. Freedland, /. (London, 1972; rev. ed., Jolie—The Story ofA. J., 1985; reprinted as /.: The Story of A. J., 1995); B. Anderton, Sonny Boy! The World of A. J. (London, 1975); R. Oberfirst, A. ]., You Ain’t Heard Nothin Yet (San Diego, 1980); L. Kiner, The A. J. Discogmphy (Westport, Conn., 1983); D. McClelland, Blackface to Blacklist: A. J., Larry Parks and the Jolson Story (Metuchen, N.J., 1987); H. Goldman, /.; The Legend Comes to Life (N.Y., 1988); L. Kiner and P. Evans, A. J.: A Bio-Discography (Metuchen, N.J., 1992); J. Fisher, A. J.: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1994).

—William Ruhlmann