Al Jolson

Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer

Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson, Seredzius, Lithuania, May 26, 1886 - October 23, 1950) was an American singer and the immigrant son of a Russian Jew. He was one of the most popular entertainers of the 20th century.

The son of a cantor, Jolson became a popular singer in New York City in 1898, and gradually developed the key elements of his performance: blackface makeup; exuberant gestures; operatic-style singing; whistling and directly addressing his audience.

By 1911, he had parlayed a supporting appearance in the Broadway musical "La Belle Paree" into a starring role. He began recording and was soon internationally famous for his extraordinary stage presence and personal rapport with audiences. His Broadway career is unmatched for length and popularity, having spanned close to 30 years (1911-1940). However, he is best known today for his appearance in one of the first "talkies" The Jazz Singer, (the first feature film with sound to enjoy wide commercial success), in 1927. In truth, Jolson's singing was never jazz, indeed his style remained forever rooted in the vaudeville stage at the turn of 20th century.

"Jolie" as he was known to his friends in "The Show Business" was the first entertainer to sell one million records. While no official "Billboard" chart existed during Jolson's career, their staff archivist Joel Whitburn used a variety of sources such as Talking Machine World's list of top-selling recordings, and Billboard's own sheet music and vaudeville charts to estimate the hits of 1890-1954. By his reckoning, Jolson had the equivalent of 23 #1 hits, the 4th-highest total ever, trailing only Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, and Guy Lombardo. Whitburn calculates that Jolson topped one chart or another for 114 weeks.

Among the many songs popularized by Jolson were "You Made Me Love You," "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody," "Swanee," (songwriter George Gershwin's first success) "April Showers," "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye," "California, Here I Come," "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along," and "Avalon."

After leaving the Broadway stage Jolson starred on radio, and his shows were typically rated in the top ten. However, Jolson scored what many believe to be the greatest comeback in show business history when Columbia Pictures produced the film biography The Jolson Story in 1946, which starred Larry Parks as Jolson, lip-synching to Jolson's voice. Jolson himself made a short appearance in the film. A box office smash (it was the highest grossing film since Gone With the Wind) led to a whole new generation who became enthralled with Jolson's voice and charisma. Despite such singers as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como being in their primes, Jolson was voted the "Most Popular Male Vocalist" in 1948 by a Variety poll.

His legacy is considered by many to be severely neglected today because of his use of stage blackface which, while at the time was a theatrical convention used by many performers (both white and black), but is today seen by many as a racial slur. Jolson was billed as "The World's Greatest Entertainer", which is how many of the greatest stars (including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Jackie Wilson, etc.) referred to him. A life-long devotion to entertaining American troops, servicemen and women, (he first sang for servicemen of the Spanish-American War as a boy in Washington DC) and, against the advice of his doctors, he was entertaining troops in Korea in 1950 when his heart began to fail.

He died on October 23, 1950 in San Francisco and was interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. On the day he died, Broadway turned off its lights for 10 minutes in his honor. However, today there can be found no statue, plaque or even sign anywhere in New York honoring Jolson, his talents, or his contributions to the Broadway stage.

External links

Collected works of Al Jolson at the Internet Archive ( Jolson


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