Jolson, Al (1886-1950)

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Jolson, Al (1886-1950)

Al Jolson lived "The American Dream." Born in Lithuania, Jolson rose through the ranks of vaudeville as a comedian and a blackface "Mammy" singer. By 1920, he had become the biggest star on Broadway, but he is probably best remembered for his film career. He starred in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first talking movie ever made, and his legend was assured in 1946 with the release of the successful biography of his life called The Jolson Story. Jolson was the first openly Jewish man to become an entertainment star in America. His marginal status as a Jew informed his blackface portrayal of Southern blacks. Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American musical innovations like jazz, rag-time, and the blues to white audiences. The brightest star of the first half of the twentieth century, Jolson was eternally grateful for the opportunities America had given him. He tirelessly entertained American troops in World War II and in the Korean War, and he contributed time and money to the March of Dimes and other philanthropic causes. While some of his colleagues in show business complained about his inflated ego, he certainly deserved his moniker: "The World's Greatest Entertainer."

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the man who made his mark singing "My Mammy" in blackface was himself a "mamma's boy." Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in Seredzius, Lithuania, sometime between 1883 and 1886. He was the youngest of four children—the baby of the family and his mother Naomi's favorite. When Asa was four, his father, Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson, left Lithuania to put down roots for the family in America. From age four to age eight, Asa was raised by his mother. She introduced him to the violin and told him that if he practiced hard he could become a star performer in America someday. When Asa was eight Rabbi Yeolson brought his family to Washington, D.C., where he had found work as a rabbi and a cantor at a Jewish congregation. Later that same year, Naomi died. Seeing his mother in her death throes traumatized young Asa, and he spent much of his life struggling with that trauma. After her death, he remained withdrawn for seven months until he met Al Reeves, who played the banjo, sang, and introduced him to show business. At age nine, Asa and his older brother Hirsch changed their names to Al and Harry, and by age 11 Al was singing in the streets for nickels and dimes that he used to buy tickets to shows at the National Theater.

After running away from home to New York City and doing a stint with a circus, Al joined his brother Harry on the vaudeville circuit. In 1904, the brothers teamed up with a disabled man named Joe Palmer to form a comedy troupe. A friend of Joe's wrote them a comedy skit, but Al was uncomfortable with it until he took James Dooley's advice to try performing it in blackface. Jolson remained in blackface for the rest of his stage and screen career. His blackface routine was a hit on the vaudeville circuit and he came to New York to perform it in 1906. His trademarks were a whistling trick that approximated a frenetic birdcall, a performance of vocal scales, and very dramatic facial expressions. He billed himself "The Blackface with the Grand Opera Voice." After his New York debut, he had success as a blackface comedian and singer in California. In 1911 he returned to New York to star in La Belle Paree, a vaudeville revue. There Jolson quickly established himself as the biggest star on Broadway.

Jolson's film career began inauspiciously with a short film for the Vitagraph Company in 1916. In 1923, he agreed to star in a film by D. W. Griffith, but backed out of his contract after filming had begun because Griffith had assigned an assistant to direct Jolson's scenes. In 1926, he made another short film for Warner Brothers, and in 1927, he was signed to star in a screen version of Samuel Raphelson's play TheJazz Singer. This was the role that Jolson had waited his whole life to play. Based on Jolson's own life, it was the story of a Jewish boy named Jackie Rabinowitz who runs away from his father, who is a cantor from the old world, because Jackie wants to be in show business. Jackie returns home to chant the Kol Nidre service as his father lies on his deathbed. The film was incredibly popular because it combined old silent film technology (words printed on the screen) with four dramatically innovative vitaphone "talking" sequences. Jolson quickly became the first movie star in the modern sense. He went on to make The Singing Fool (1928), Say it with Songs (1929), Mammy (1930), and Big Boy (1930) before returning to Broadway in 1931. His star dimmed a bit in the late 1930s and early 1940s until the highly acclaimed biographical film The Jolson Story, starring Larry Parks, was released in 1946. Parks mouthed the songs which Al Jolson himself sang for the film, and the sound track of the film sold several million copies.

Al Jolson was to jazz, blues, and ragtime what Elvis Presley was to rock 'n' roll. Jolson had first heard African-American music in New Orleans in 1905, and he performed it for the rest of his life. Like Elvis, Jolson gyrated his lower body as he danced. In The Jazz Singer, white viewers saw Jolson moving his hips and waist in ways that they had never seen before. Historian and performer Stephen Hanan has written in Tikkun that Jolson's "funky rhythm and below-the-waist gyrations (not seen again from any white male till the advent of Elvis) were harbingers of the sexual liberation of the new urban era. Jolson was a rock star before the dawn of rock music." Al Jolson paved the way for African-American performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters. It is remarkable that a Jewish mamma's boy from Lithuania could do so much to bridge the cultural gap between black and white America.

—Adam Max Cohen

Further Reading:

Freeland, Michael. Jolie: The Story of Al Jolson. New York, Stein and Day, 1972.

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

Hanan, Stephen Mo. "Al Jolson: The Soul Beneath the Mask." Tikkun. Vol. 13, No. 5, 1998, 21-22.

Leonard, William Torbert. Masquerade in Black. Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1986.