Al Jolson - Biography

By J Poet

Al Jolson came on the scene at the perfect time. Records were becoming a medium of mass entertainment and “talking pictures” were growing increasingly common and popular. Jolson took advantage of both to become America’s first superstar; an all-round entertainer who could sing, dance, do comedy, and act. Though now mostly remembered for his electrifying turn in The Jazz Singer (1927) (the first feature-length “talkie”), in his prime he was the highest paid entertainer in history. Although there were no formal music charts during his heyday, he would have had at least 50 Gold Records by a conservative count. He was one of the first openly Jewish men to become star in the United States and while many in the Civil Rights era criticized him for having appeared in blackface (a once common practice of darkening their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish and putting on exaggerated Negro mannerisms), he was the first high profile entertainer to speak out for racial equality—helping African American playwright Garland Anderson produce Appearances, one of the earliest all-black productions ever staged on Broadway. He was the first star to entertain the troops in Europe during WW II and in Korea during the Korean War. When he died, the lights on Broadway were dimmed in his honor.


            Al Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in Seredžius, Lithuania on May 26th, 1886. His father was a cantor who was able to move the family to Washington, DC in 1894. His mother died when Jolson was eight and her death haunted him for the rest of his life. Asa and his brother Hirsh changed their names to “Al” and “Henry” and started singing on street corners for spare change, driven by their obsessive desire to enter show business. They ran away from home when Asa was 14 and toured the country with traveling circuses and later performing in burlesque and vaudeville shows as The Hebrew and the Cadet doing self-effacing Jewish humor. 1n 1904, with the “more American” sounding name of “Jolson,” he performed in blackface for the first time and his career took off. It must be noted that there were no sound systems in those days, so Jolson developed a big, larger than life voice and persona to capture audiences. He stomped, cried, did slapstick, told bawdy jokes and fell to his knees to get the audience’s attention.


            In 1909 Jolson joined Dockstader’s Minstrels, the premier minstrel touring group, and when they hit New York, Jolson became a sensation. He started whistling on stage, which became one of his trademarks, and continued playing the vaudeville circuit while preparing for his Broadway debut. His star turn in La Belle Paree, a 1911 review staged at The Winter Garden in New York made Jolson a star. His improvisations and lyrical ad-libs generated a lot of repeat business with people coming back to witness more of his unpredictable antics. In The Whirl of Society, his third hit review, Jolson introduced “Gus,” his blackface alter ego who stopped to exchange ad-libs with audience members. The character was a huge success. Any song Jolson sang immediately sold millions of copies of sheet music so composers showered him with hit songs like “Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee” and “Row, Row, Row.” Jolson had a ramp built into the theater for his Sunday concerts at the Winter Garden, which allowed him to run out into the audience and interact with them. His 15-minute gig often ran closer to an hour thanks to numerous encores. By 1912 he was recording for Victor where he turned out dozens of million selling hits.


            Jolson starred in comedy The Honeymoon Express in 1913 and in the first act asked the audience, “Do you want to hear the rest of the story, or do you want me?” He turned the show into a one-man concert and introduced one of his biggest hits, “You Made Me Love You.” In 1913, he moved to Columbia where he cut “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” and “Swanee.” In Robinson Crusoe Jr. (1916), Jolson was to play three roles but he ignored the plot and instead belted out tunes like “Where the Black Eyed Susan's Grow” and “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?” Sinbad (1918) was another huge hit, and Jolson realized he could make even more money by writing lyrics to songs and sharing in the publishing royalties. The hits from Sinbad included “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,”  “Swanee” and “My Mammy.” When America entered WW I, Jolson sang at war bond rallies and benefits and raised millions of dollars for the war effort.


            Jolson was also widely considered to be an impossible egomaniac. Anyone who upstaged him was fired and he frequently suffered from bouts of crippling stage fright which often had him vomiting before and after shows. He inserted new lyrics into songs and demanded royalties from the songwriters. He was also a womanizer, ignoring his four wives to pursue any woman in sight. In 1926, Warner Bothers made a brief sound film with Jolson, A Plantation Act, but it went largely unnoticed. The following year the studio filmed The Jazz Singer with Jolson in the title role. Although primarily silent, its talking sequences were reserved for Jolson’s singing and bantering, but that was what the audience wanted. The film was a smash and Jolson was a movie star. The Singing Fool (1928), Jolson’s second talkie spawned the million selling record “Sonny Boy.” He made a few more films, but his sentimental style was beginning to fall out of favor with audiences. The films were only mildly successful—something the ego driven entertainer couldn’t stand. He returned to Broadway for The Wonder Bar (1931) but due in part to the Great Depression, it soon closed.


            Jolson subsequently turned his attention to radio, landing an NBC variety show, Presenting Al Jolson, that ran 15 weeks and Kraft Music Hall, which he hosted for a year from 1933-1934. A few movies with his then wife Ruby Keeler flopped and he tried Broadway again. Hold On to Your Hats (1940) included a long improvisation with Jolson as a radio broadcaster singing his old hits and bantering with the audience. It ran for a year but Jolson’s health was starting to fail. During WW II, Jolson performed for the troops all over the world, contracting malaria in the process and losing a lung. Back in Hollywood, he appeared as himself singing “Swanee” in Rhapsody in Blue (1945). When Columbia Pictures made a Jolson biopic, he recorded new versions of his hits for the soundtrack, but a new young actor, Larry Parks, lip-synched the songs and played the lead role. Nonetheless, The Jolson Story (1946) was a hit and Jolson was a star again at age 61. His Decca 10-inch albums from that time rejuvenated his recording career. Al Jolson in Songs He Made Famous (1946 Decca) stayed at #1 on the pop charts for 25 weeks and was followed by The Al Jolson Souvenir Album (1947 Decca), The Al Jolson Souvenir Album, Vol. 2 (1948 Decca), The Al Jolson Souvenir Album, Vol. 3 (1949 Decca), The Al Jolson Souvenir Album, Vol. 4 (1949 Decca), The Al Jolson Souvenir Album, Vol. 5 (1951 Decca), The Al Jolson Souvenir Album, Vol. 6 (1951 Decca), and Jolson Sings Again (1949 Decca). They all were primarily re-recordings of his early hits.


            He returned to radio in 1947, hosting the Kraft Music Hall and made more hit records including “Is It True What They Say about Dixie?” and “Baby Face.” Jolson Sings Again (1949), a biopic sequel, reintroduced 16 more Jolson hits and Jolson signed up for a new film and a series of televisions spectaculars. These were put on hold when he left to entertain the troops in Korea. He did 42 concerts in seven days and returned to the States feeling ill. While preparing for a guest shot on the Bing Crosby radio show in late 1950, he suffered a heart attack and died.


            Because of changing times and musical styles, many of Jolson’s early recordings are criminally out of print. Good compilations include You Ain't Heard Nothin’ Yet: Jolie's Finest Columbia Recordings (1994 Columbia/Legacy) and Let Me Sing and I'm Happy: Al Jolson at Warner Bros. 1926-1936 (1996 Rhino).

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