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 on Al Jolson
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.