Wednesday, December 14, 2011


When Al Jolson died in 1950 Harry Truman was president. No one had heard of Elvis Presley yet, and television was just overtaking radio as the most popular medium. Jolson has been gone a long long time. Most people do not know who he is. He is associated with blackface, an entertainment genre that was cosidered passe as soon as the early 1950s. So why should Al Jolson be remembered? Why should someone raised on reality television and American Idol should even be aware who Al Jolson is. Here are some of the reasons:

Perhaps no other performer had so much influence on the development and performance of American popular song as Al Jolson. A man of intensity, with a huge ego, he called himself the worlds greatest performer. Few at that time argued with him, and few since have denied his claim. Al Jolson was born as Asa Yoelson, in Srednike Lithuania May 26, 1886. He was was brought to the USA as a young boy, probably in 1894 and was raised in Washington DC. As a youngster, he always seemed to be interested in show business and at one time, ran away to join a troupe but was soon returned back to his parents. His father was a cantor in a Washington synagogue. Rather than following in his father's footsteps Al teamed up with his brother and with the comedian Joe Palmer to tour the vaudeville shows. He later adopted a black face and specialized in singing in minstrel shows. Does that story sound at all familiar? Film buffs will see its similarity to the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, and the 1984 remake of the same name starring Neil Diamond. In many respects, art imitated life with respect to the life and career of the great Al Jolson.

As with any superstar, the truth gets expanded and lore develops to create a life story that is larger than life. In Jolson's case, his actual career and ego were in fact, larger than life but still we have elements of urban legend to deal with. It is said that young Asa's first taste of performance took place when he had found his way into the Bijou theater in Washington where a performer/ songwriter named Eddie Leonard was appearing. It is said that Leonard was singing his favorite song, Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider (1903, music by Leonard, words by Eddie Munson). Leonard invited the audience to sing along with him in the chorus. While the audience mumbled and stumbled through the chorus, Asa's sweet voice lofted over the cacophony and soon the entire theater was listening and spontaneously burst into applause.

Smitten by the adulation of the audience, Al Jolson was born that night and began a love affair with performance that would last his lifetime. However, we do know that this really may not have been his first experience for as early as 1899, he appeared in a production, The Children of The Ghetto as an extra and by 1900 was being paid for performing in various small time burlesque and vaudeville theaters. In 1909, Jolson joined Lew Dockstader's Minstrels (at left) and performed a number of solo works. It was with Dockstader that we first see the Blackface Jolson that later became so intertwined with Jolson's persona and by which he was most often remembered. It was also here that Jolson had his first try at a "mammy" song, singing It's A Long Way Back To Dear Old Mammy's Knees. Though associated later with such songs, his trademark kneeling position (seen at the top of the page) had not yet been introduced. That would come much much later, and quite by accident.

Jolson's popularity with audiences resulted in practices by him that would consternate and befuddle fellow performers, stage managers and writers of shows. In essence, if he saw fit he would often completely dispense with the show's plan or script and perform as he pleased. Often he would make impromptu remarks to the audience or completely take over a show. It was with extreme bravado and consummate confidence that Jolson would strike out on his own. Invariably, his actions met with success so no matter how annoying it may have been to his costars and show writers, it brought in the crowds and ticket sales so not much, if anything was done to "correct" him. Later in life, this "my way or the highway" attitude would work to Jolson's disadvantage and place him in disfavor among many producers and fellow performers. In 1909, at a performance at the Victoria, he stopped the show in progress and called for the houselights. He walked stage front and addressed the audience and began talking to the audience. He supposedly said; You know folks, this is the happiest day of my life, I just want to sing and sing. Ya wanna listen?" The audience enthusiastically responded and Jolson sang song after song for hours.

The famous show production brothers, Lee and J.J. Schubert took notice of Jolson and engaged Jolson to appear in the Premiere of the stage production, La Belle Paree at the opening of their Wintergarden Theater on March 20, 1911. Unfortunately, the show itself was a bomb from the beginning and the audience was becoming restless and many bolted from the theater as the show was in progress. Even Jolson's blackface performance of Jerome Kern's Paris is a Paradise for Coons failed to hold the audience's interest and people left in droves. Reviews the next day were withering in their attack of the show. On the next performance Jolson decided to dispense with the show as written and interrupted the production to talk about the critics reviews. Incredibly, Jolson then asked the audience if they would rather hear him sing rather than the rest of the show and of course, the audience agreed. Jolson then launched into his own performance and dismissed the entire production in one huge egotistical act of personal aggrandizement. The reviews encouraged this behavior by praising his actions and thus was started a pattern of audience adulation and solo performance that would go on for years. Crowds overflowed the Wintergarden and it became Jolson's personal venue for many years to follow.

To accommodate Jolson's popularity, in 1912 the Schuberts established weekly concerts at the Winter Garden where Jolson was allowed to perform at liberty. These performances always were well attended and he always performed without the blackface characterization. Robert Benchly wrote about these concerts in Life magazine where he said:

"As Jolson enters the stage it as if an electric current has been run along the wires under the seats where hats are stuck. The house comes to a tumultuous attention. He speaks, rolls his eyes, compresses his lips, and it is all over. You are a member of the Al Jolson Association. He trembles his lip and your heart breaks with a snap. He sings a song and you totter out to send a letter to your mother...while singing would run up and down his runway addressing members of the audience making them each feel that Jolson was singing to them alone."

It was in 1918 that Jolson's famous line developed; "you ain't heard nothin' yet," a line that would be made famous in his first talking film, The Jazz Singer, still 14 years in the future. The great operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was on a benefit show bill with Jolson. After Caruso's grand performance, Jolson and his ego stepped onto the stage and he uttered that famous line. What an insult but as we've already seen, Jolson seemed to care not one iota about how his actions affected others and seemed oblivious to his fellow performer's and their skills. The kneeling pose, which also became a signature of Jolson's performance also seems to have developed without forethought. Often attributed to his desire to get close to his audience, in fact, it originated not through some performing brilliance but because of an ingrown toenail. One night, Jolson was suffering great pain from the toenail and during his performance, he kneeled down to relieve the pressure on the foot and gesticulated wildly to make it appear as a part of the show. As with everything Jolson did, it clicked with the audience and from then on, the kneeling mammy singer pose was used constantly by Jolson.

According to Donald Clarke in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (see our bibliography), from the period of 1912 to 1930, Jolson recorded eighty five songs. Of that total, 23 reached what we would consider number one hit status. Among the great hits of that era, many are remembered today as Jolson's alone even though other performers recorded or performed them. California Here I Come, Swanee, Toot, Toot Tootsie (Goo' Bye) and April Showers are among the many hits he performed. See our December, 2002 feature on Jolson songs for performances, cover images and other commentary on these songs and others he made famous. One of his most famous songs, My Mammy, was originally introduced in vaudeville by none other than William Frawley ( Lucille Ball's neighbor Fred Mertz, in I Love Lucy). Jolson liked the song so much, he had it included in his 1918 Broadway hit show, Sinbad. From that moment on, My Mammy belonged to Jolson and Frawley was relegated to obscurity till he joined Lucy. Jolson depended heavily on some of the periods greatest songwriters, especially Bud De Sylva, Sam Lewis, Joe Young and Jean Schwartz. However, around 1918, Jolson began writing lyrics and trying his hand at writing melodies. A number of songs he co-wrote also appear in the above mentioned December, 2002 feature.

Through the teens and into the late twenties, Jolson continued to appear in stage shows that featured him and his style. He continued to perform many roles in blackface, long after it was generally popular and most other performers had dispensed with it. Among the shows he appeared in were Dancing Around, (1914); Robinson Crusoe Jr., (1916); Sinbad, (1918); Bombo, (1921); and Big Boy, (1921). In 1927, the motion picture industry was trying to perfect sound and Jolson was approached to star in a film titled, The Jazz Singer. The film was not the first film with sound as many believe, nor did it have continuous sound and dialogue, but because of Jolson's popularity and personality, the movie sparked interest in sound films and was instrumental in getting public acceptance of "talkies".

Jolson became enamored with films as a way to spread his fame and style and stayed in Hollywood for many years and appeared in a number of other films including The Singing Fool, (1928), Say It With Songs, (1929) and Hallelujah, I'm A Bum, (1933), neither of which are as remembered as The Jazz Singer. However, The Singing Fool was the first movie to play at the Winter Garden, the place where Jolson had his greatest performance success. It also was the first movie to go over $3.00 for admission and to exceed $4 million dollars in gross receipts. In that film, Jolson sang some of his best songs including, I'm Sittin' On Top Of The World, It All Depends on You and Sonny Boy. (sorry, MIDI or Scorch not available for Sonny Boy due to copyright restrictions. See our publishing policy for more information.)

Jolson stayed in Hollywood and became a producer in 1944. He was virtually forgotten till 1946 when the film, The Jolson Story was released. Starry Larry Parks, the actual singing was done by Jolson. In 1949, Parks again starred as Jolson in Jolson Sings Again and Jolson enjoyed a resurgence in sales of his records as a result of these two films. Interestingly, much of the sales of his records were attributed to young girls' who were enamored more with the handsome young Parks than Jolson. In 1950, Jolson went to Korea to entertain troops there and a month later, he died.

Without question, Al Jolson changed the nature of performance style for the crooner/singer in the early 20th century. His panache, exuberance and ego conspired to create one of America's most legendary performers. A vain and self centered man, we cannot deny his talent and his ability to touch an audience and deliver great performances that were on target. In many cases, huge egos end up self deflating or prove to be unfounded. In Jolson;s case, his self proclaimed status as "the world's greatest entertainer" is probably deserved. Had he not said it himself, it is likely that he would have been crowned as the king of singers and earned the title without having claimed it himself.

Jolson should not be remembered for his Mammy singing or blackface entertainment. He was one of the first mega superstars who had a commanding voice in every medium of the time. He might have died before my mother was even born, but Jolson is a name that always will be remembered in my household. He should not be forgotten...

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post on this charismatic performer. It is hard today perhaps to understand just how big a hit he was in his day. His overly dramatic style which had long been cliche even in his lifetime, draws us to him and yet at the same time puts up a barrier. That was the strange paradox of his life, I think. Great job.