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 popularity—though 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 genre—the blackface minstrel revue—that 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 Jolson’s impact in his own time was so great that traces of it continue to surface.
The most important—except perhaps for Irving Berlin—of 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. Jolson’s mother, Naomi, died the following year; according to biographer Herbert G. Goldman, the trauma of her death shaped Jolson’s 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. Jolson’s 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.
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 Gershwin’s “Swanee,” and “My Mammy.” By 1920 Jolson was without question the biggest star in the country.
As such, he was eagerly sought by Hollywood’s 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 Jolson—in blackface, as he would be in all except one of his subsequent dozen films—singing “My Mammy” and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Also significant was that the movie’s story, which concerned a Jewish singer’s efforts to become a Broadway star despite his cantor father’s disapproval, paralleled events in Jolson’s own life. The Jazz Singer was an unprecedented success and raised Jolson’s star even higher.
Jolson continued to make movies, including the interesting Depression-era “Hallelujah, I’m 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 performance—touring the world during World War II to appear before American military units. These performances rekindled public interest in Jolson’s music in the late 1940s, and two films were released based on the entertainer’s life, The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, with Jolson’s 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 Jolson’s personality is to know what the coiners of the word ’personality’ meant. The word isn’t 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.
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 Jolson’s. The stilted but highly emotional quasi-Shakespearean dialogue passage, exaggerated romanticism, and semi-operatic but rhythmically free singing on Presley’s rendition all stem directly from Jolson’s performance, and all typified the early entertainer’s stage personality.
The comparison between Jolson and Presley may be fruitful in another way as well—in the area of musical repertoire. Both singers took up hackneyed, nearly antiquated styles—blackface sentimentality in Jolson’s case, aging country and pop material in Presley’s—and mixed with those styles an explosive vocal energy derived from contemporary forms of African-American singing. Jolson’s 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 Jolson’s 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 Presley’s 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 Diamond’s version, the song that wins over the singer’s reluctant rabbi father to his son’s 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.
The First Recordings, 1911-1916: You Made Me Love You, Stash, 1993.
Brunswick Rarities (recorded 1926-30), MCA.
Alexander’s 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 Ain’t 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.
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.
Life, November 6, 1950.
New York Times, October 24, 1950.
Time, October 30, 1950.
Village Voice, January 7, 1981.
—James M. Manheim
Born May 26, 1886
Died October 23, 1950
San Francisco, California
"You think that's noise—you ain't heard nuttin' yet!"
A l Jolson was arguably the biggest star on Broadway in the early to mid-1900s, with a career that spanned four decades (1911–40). He starred in the first commercially successful "talking" movie (film with sound, as compared with the "silent" films in which all dialogue was printed on the screen), The Jazz Singer, in 1927, and that is the role for which he is best remembered. Jolson was the first Jewish star to publicly acknowledge his Jewish heritage. He is credited with almost single-handedly introducing African American music such as jazz and ragtime to white audiences. He was known in his day as "The World's Greatest Entertainer."
A young Russian Jew makes his way
Al Jolson was born Asa Yoelson on May 26, 1886, in the Lithuanian village of Seredzius, located in Russia. This date cannot be proved to be Jolson's birthday, as no formal birth certificate exists. At that time, Imperial Russia was run by anti-Semites, or people who are racist against Jews, and the authorities did not feel the birth of another Jew was worth recording. Asa was the youngest of four siblings born into a strict Jewish family headed by Moshe Yoelson, a cantor, or male singer who leads prayers in a synagogue (a place of worship for Jews). Both Asa and his brother were expected to become cantors. They were trained to sing using matchsticks to hold open their mouths as encouragement to sing loud and clear.
When Yoelson's father became a rabbi (a Jewish religious official), he headed for America in hopes of escaping the oppression that marked Imperial Russia. Without reason, Jews were routinely brutalized by the Russian government, often to the point of death. Jewish families were split up, and their businesses forced to close. Moshe wanted a better life for his family, and he became the rabbi of a congregation in Washington, D.C., in 1894. He sent for his wife and children, and the family began a new life. Tragedy struck in 1895, however, when eight-year-old Asa's mother became ill and died suddenly. Having been his mother's favorite child, and raised solely by her for the past four years, Asa became withdrawn and suffered from the traumatic experience of watching his mother die. The world as he knew it had been destroyed. It was an event that was to have a powerful impact on the rest of his life.
Although Moshe tried to raise his children in traditional Jewish ways, his efforts were largely unsuccessful, at least where they concerned Asa and his older brother Hirsch. The brothers worked as newsboys, a job that kept them on the streets and took them into the less reputable establishments of the day. In their travels, they learned the ragtime songs heard on the streets and in the saloons of Washington, and they came to know the musicians. This new life intrigued them, and they embraced the culture despite their father's pleas. Asa soon became Al, and Hirsch became Harry. The two boys ran away from home a number of times, and Al even endured a brief stay in an orphanage.
Having already been musically trained, the brothers soaked up the ragtime tunes that surrounded them. They quickly learned the music and styles of other immigrant cultures in the city as well as the dance steps created by the African American (called Negro in those days) boys who brought their talent to the streets. Al took any job available to break into show business. After heading to New York City, he sang in a traveling circus. Then it was on to burlesque (a type of show in which actors and singers imitated other famous characters in humorous ways) and vaudeville (a stage show that includes dance, comedy, singing, acting, and even acrobatics). He and his brother Harry eventually formed a comedy act. It was at this time they changed their last name to "Joelson" in an effort to appear less "ethnic," or Jewish. Shortly after that, it became Jolson. The Jolson brothers found minor success with their act, but Al was self-conscious about his performance, which often relied on crude (unrefined, often considered in bad taste) humor. The solution to this problem would prove to be the very thing that brought the eighteen-year-old Jolson fame.
With blackface, a star is born
In 1904, the Jolson brothers teamed up with comic Joe Palmer on the vaudeville circuit. While the act known as Jolson, Palmer, and Jolson was performing at Keeney's Theatre in Brooklyn in 1904, Al Jolson began wearing blackface as a way to give him freedom in his acting. Blackface is exactly what it sounds like it is: a face painted black. Cork was burned and the residue was smeared on the face. Lips were then painted white, and the result was clownlike. Although today blackface is considered racially offensive, that attitude had not taken hold in the early 1900s. It had been common for white men to imitate African Americans on American stages since the 1830s, and the practice was not interpreted as racist or insulting. In fact, Jewish entertainers used blackface not only as a means of entertainment but as a way of keeping in touch with the oppression, or persecution, they had suffered throughout history. For Jolson, blackface was a mask behind which he could hide, which gave him a confidence he had long ago lost with the death of his mother.
Jolson's blackface routine became an instant hit, and soon he was booked in some of the best vaudeville houses in the country. At this point, Harry moved on in hopes of finding success with a solo career. Fame eluded him, however, and he was never able to escape being "Al Jolson's brother." Palmer continued with Al Jolson a bit longer, but bowed out when he felt he was holding Jolson back from stardom.
In 1906, Al Jolson began billing himself as a "singing comedian." Every performance included vocal scales as well as a whistling routine that sounded very much like a hyperactive birdcall. He became known for his dramatic facial expressions, made all the more obvious because he outlined his lips in white. In 1908, he joined a minstrel show, a comic variety show in which all participants wore blackface. Jolson wanted to perform the kinds of music he grew up with—jazz, ragtime, and blues—but the minstrel shows of this era were focused on the music of the American Civil War (1861–65). Unhappy with this limitation, he quit the minstrel shows and began performing solo.
As always, hiding behind the mask of blackface gave Jolson a freedom rarely seen in vaudeville, and he was celebrated for the depth of emotion he conveyed. Drawing upon his orphaned childhood, the spirituality of the synagogue, and the soulfulness of the black music he loved, Jolson gave his audience performances they could not experience elsewhere. In fact, despite an overall acceptance that rock-and-roll singer Elvis Presley (1935–1977) was the first performer to include below-the-waist movements in his performances, it is actually Jolson who deserves this credit. At a time when African American entertainers would have been putting themselves in danger by such a performance, and white performers would have been labeled scandalous, Jolson not only got away with it, but became famous because of it. He also performed several songs in a female persona, thereby crossing not only racial lines, but those of gender as well.
To Broadway and beyond
Having traveled to California during the early years of his solo career, Jolson returned to New York in 1911 to star in La Belle Paree, a vaudeville revue that established him as the biggest star on Broadway. By this time, he had married Henrietta Keller, a young dancer he met while in California. Despite Henrietta's wishes that Jolson take a break and start a family, he forged on to star in several more musical revues, many of them produced by the Shubert Brothers (Lee [c. 1873–1953], Samuel [c. 1875–1905], and Jacob [c. 1879–1963]). Although he played the same character in every show, audiences loved the long-suffering blackface underdog, and Jolson took advantage of that loyalty. He incorporated new songs into his performances whenever possible, and he was instrumental in the careers of famous musical composers George Gershwin (1898–1937) and George M. Cohan (1878–1942).
The Shubert Brothers recognized a good thing when they saw it, and Jolson was it. At his request, the Shuberts built a runway that reached out into the Winter Garden auditorium (one of the most popular theaters of the day). Jolson used this runway to dance and sing out into the middle of the audience, something never before done. The audience went wild for Jolson, and his fifteen-minute time slot often ran over into forty minutes or more.
In 1913, Jolson starred in the Broadway production The Honeymoon Express. Although he had costars, Jolson soon turned the musical into a one-man show, and he received top billing for the first time in his career. On opening night, Jolson stopped in the middle of an act, turned to the audience, and asked, "Do you want to hear the rest of the story, or do you want me?" The audience's shouts gave him all the encouragement he needed, and he turned the show into a concert of the songs he was most famous for performing. Although no Broadway performer before (or since) had ever had the daring to pull such a stunt, it became Jolson's trademark. The Shubert Brothers banked on Jolson's innovative performances, and in 1921 they built a sixteen-hundred-seat theater, aptly named Jolson's 59th Street Theatre.
Personal life not so glorious
While Jolson's professional life dazzled with fame, he paid a price in his personal life. His wife Henrietta filed for divorce in 1918, and despite Jolson's attempts at reconciliation, she would have nothing to do with him. She had suffered physical abuse at his hands and had been publicly humiliated over his countless affairs. Jolson's desire to be seen as a "man's man" led to a serious gambling addiction, a condition that would haunt him throughout his life. In 1922, Jolson married one of the many chorus girls with whom he came into contact, Ethel Delmar. She turned to alcohol as comfort from the abuse and long absences of her husband, and in 1926 the couple divorced. Ethel never recovered from her alcoholism, and she was committed to private nursing facilities on Long Island, where she died in 1976.
Star of the silver screen and The Jazz Singer
Although Jolson had appeared in several silent movies, he had not achieved any notoriety for them. In 1927, all that changed when Warner Studios offered him the role of Jack Robin in the first successful sound movie, The Jazz Singer. The story closely resembled Jolson's own life: Stage singer Jack Robin rises to stardom despite the disapproval of his Orthodox, or traditional, cantor father. Although the film was initially to use sound only for a handful of songs, Jolson improvised, or made up, dialogue along the way and that, too, was inserted into the picture. The debut of The Jazz Singer marked the end of the silent film era. Moviegoers wanted nothing but "talkies," and Jolson was the sensation's first star.
Jolson starred in numerous films after that, including The Singing Fool (1928) and Say It with Songs (1929). These movies were sentimental tearjerkers, as nearly all of his stage and screen productions had been. But the tastes of the era were changing, and by the time Jolson made his final movies in 1930, he was no longer king of Hollywood. In 1929, he married his third wife, a young woman more than half his age by the name of Ruby Keeler (1909–1993). A chorus girl who grew up on the streets of New York, Ruby was unlike Jolson's previous wives in that she refused to endure his abuse quietly. As a result, their rocky marriage was highly publicized in the gossip columns. But Ruby remained Mrs. Al Jolson as long as she had a career to keep her busy. The couple even adopted a boy and renamed him Al Jolson Jr. As Ruby spent more time at home as a mother to their son, she found herself less willing to put up with her husband's abusive behavior. She divorced him in 1939, and their adopted son was eventually adopted again by Ruby's next husband.
A return to Broadway and a venture into radio
Jolson did not worry about his loss of power in Hollywood. Instead, he returned to Broadway. His timing was not the best, however, as the Great Depression (1929–40; a period of intense poverty as a result of the stock market crash of 1929) prevented people from having the extra cash to spend on entertainment. Seats were left empty, and Jolson became depressed, often missing performances.
Jolson experimented with radio appearances in 1932. He did not enjoy the experience, though, and quit after less than four months. After several more unsuccessful attempts at Hollywood, Jolson flip-flopped back to radio in 1936, this time with his own series. In 1940, he returned to Broadway in Hold On to Your Hats. With this production, he won the kind of recognition that had eluded him for years. His health began failing shortly after his most recent divorce, however, and he decided to close the show despite high ticket sales.
Jolson performed for American troops during World War II (1939–45). Although he continued to make radio appearances, his focus was on the troops—that is, until he met Erle Galbraith. In 1944, Galbraith was a twenty-one-year-old X-ray technician in a Georgia military camp. Jolson met her while touring, and he immediately offered her a screen test based on her good looks and Kentucky drawl. Jolson's relationship with Galbraith intensified, and they were married in 1945. This marriage was unlike Jolson's others from the start. Galbraith would simply walk out on Jolson when his temper and attitude became too much, and Jolson developed a respect for her that was lacking in his previous marriages.
Recovery and return
While recovering from a bout of malaria, Jolson starred in the George Gershwin film Rhapsody in Blue (1945). The 1946 movie, The Jolson Story, put the entertainer back in the public eye. The film became an overnight sensation largely because it included renditions of twenty-four of Jolson's lifetime hits, sung by none other than the star himself. Although he did not play himself in the autobiographical movie, he did appear in one short scene. Jolson was sixty-one years old.
With a renewed energy for life, Jolson and his wife adopted two infants, Asa Jr. and Alicia. Although Asa Jr. would grow up to lead an industrious life, Alicia was mentally impaired and was institutionalized, as was common in those days. Little is known of her.
Jolson recorded a number of hit songs during this time and began filming a sequel to the movie that made him a comeback. Jolson Sings Again was released in 1949. Again, Jolson contributed renditions of the songs that made him famous, sixteen of them this time. As a result, movie and television offers began pouring in. Jolson, ever the patriot, put his plans on hold so that he could travel to Korea and entertain American soldiers fighting in the Korean War (1950–53). After paying for the travel expenses himself, Jolson gave more than 160 concerts.
Homage to the comeback king
While preparing for an appearance on entertainer Bing Crosby's (1904–1977) radio show on October 23, 1950, Jolson complained of indigestion while playing cards with friends in his hotel room. Doctors arrived when it seemed the problem was more serious, and it was at that time that Jolson felt for his own pulse and quietly claimed, "Oh, I'm going." He died moments later. Broadway turned off its lights for ten minutes that day to honor Jolson's passing. He was buried in Culver City, California.
Controversial, influential, forgotten
Despite his having been openly Jewish, Jolson made a life for himself by exploiting elements of minority cultures. He used blackface, which today is considered obviously racist. He mimicked—often times in an unflattering, exaggerated way—the behaviors and speaking patterns of immigrants from all backgrounds and encouraged Americans to laugh at them. Yet he did more than that. He brought to the forefront these differences and allowed Americans to weave them into the ever-changing scene that was becoming American culture. He introduced African American music and dance to white America and made it something to celebrate. Through his art, he inspired white America to accept and at times to embrace the unique qualities of the immigrants who were flooding the eastern shores. His role was not merely to entertain but to help Americans understand their changing world.
Despite his controversy and influence, Jolson is largely a forgotten figure in the twenty-first century. There exists today no statue or sign in New York honoring the entertainer. He has been given no formal recognition for his role in making America a mixture of many different people and cultures—a true melting pot.
For More Information
Alexander, Michael. Jazz Age Jews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Cohen, Adam Max. "Al Jolson." In St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Erdman, Harley. Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity, 1860–1920. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Goldman, Herbert G. Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
McClelland, Doug. Blackface to Blacklist: Al Jolson, Larry Parks, and the Jolson Story. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987.
Hanan, Stephen Mo. "Al Jolson: The Soul Beneath the Mask." Tikkun.http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/index.cfm/action/tikkun/issue/tik9809/article/980923.html (accessed on March 17, 2004).
International Al Jolson Society. Al Jolson.http://www.jolson.org (accessed on March 17, 2004).
Kenrick, John. "Al Jolson: A Biography." Musicals 101.http://www.musicals101.com/jolsonbiopf.htm (accessed on March 17, 2004).
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.
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 (1898–1937) "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 (1939–45; 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 (1904–1977).
For More Information
Freedland, Michael. Jolson. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
Oberfirst, Robert. Al Jolson: You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet! San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1980.
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.
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. □
JOLSON, AL (Asa Yoelson ; 1886–1950), U.S. singer, vaudeville and film star. Born in Srednik, Lithuania, the son of a cantor, Jolson worked for some years in circuses, minstrel shows, and vaudeville houses in the U.S. In 1911 he was an instant success in his first Broadway appearance, La Belle Paree. Then came a long succession of starring roles in musicals, including Vera Violetta (1911); The Whirl of Society (1912); The Honeymoon Express (1913); Sinbad (1918), which had a two-year run; Bombo (1921), at Jolson's 59th Street Theater (named in his honor by the Shuberts); Big Boy (1925); Ziegfeld Follies (1927); and Wonder Bar (1931). Known in show business as "the world's greatest entertainer," Jolson had a dynamic personality. He received unparalleled rave reviews; and his adoring fans would explode with enthusiasm when he came on stage, often holding up the progress of the show with their unbridled cheers and applause.
In 1927 Jolson made screen history in The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talking film made in America. This was followed by The Singing Fool. Jolson's hearty, exuberant style was particularly well suited to early "talkie" technique. His other films, mainly musicals, included Say It with Songs (1929), Mammy (1930), Big Boy (1930), Hallelujah I'm a Bum (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), Go into Your Dance (1935), The Singing Kid (1936), Rose of Washington Square (1939), and Swanee River (1939).
Some of the songs that Jolson is credited to have co-written are "California, Here I Come," "Me and My Shadow," and "Sonny Boy."
The film The Jolson Story (1946) was based on his career and starred Larry Parks in the title role, using Jolson's dubbed voice. It was such a success that a second film followed three years later, entitled Jolson Sings Again (1949). To date, it is the only biography sequel in film history.
Jolson died shortly after returning from Korea, where he had gone to entertain the un troops. He was awarded the Medal of Merit posthumously. His will divided more than $4,000,000 equally among Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic charities and established scholarships for undergraduates.
P. Sieben, The Immortal Jolson, His Life and Times (1963). add. bibliography: H. Goldman, Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life (1988); D. McLelland, Blackface to Blacklist (1987); R. Oberfirst, Al Jolson: You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet (1982); B. Anderton, Sonny Boy: The World of Al Jolson (1975); M. Freedland, Jolson (1973).
[Jo Ranson /
Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]