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.
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. 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.
Al Jolson's Career
- Selective Works
- 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