Al Jolson’s story is a classic one of rags-to-riches. Born May 26, 1886 as Asa Yoelson, the son of a Jewish rabbi and cantor, he rose from poverty to international fame and wealth, entertaining audiences for four decades in vaudeville, on radio, on the stage, and on the big screen. He was an entertainment pioneer with a string of firsts: first to take a Broadway show on tour, first to make a talking picture, first to have two films made of his life, and the first to cut a long-playing record. He sang the first songs by Irving Berlin and gave George Gershwin his first big break. It’s no wonder, then, that he became known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”
Although Jolson was never a soldier in the United States Army, he did his best to support it in four wars. He tried to enlist at the age of 14 during the Spanish-American War. During World War I, he sold Liberty Bonds and he entertained the troops at home and abroad during both World War II and the Korean War. During the Korean War, he gave 42 shows in 16 days, the strain of which was believed to have led to his death by heart attack shortly after returning home.
Jolson’s singing style was dynamic, with flair and vitality. He always demanded applause for his songs and jokes and was rarely disappointed. The audiences loved him. Some of the terms used to describe his performances on stage were ‘Electric’, ‘dynamic energy’ and ‘like a cyclone’. Even after singing for three hours with incredible energy, he could still call out: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
Jolson first heard African-American music, such as jazz, blues and ragtime, in the back alleys of New Orleans, Louisiana. He enjoyed singing the new style of music. He often performed in blackface, especially when performing the songs he made popular, such as “Swanee”, “My Mammy” and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”. His blackface persona of a wily, wise-cracking servant who was always smarter than his white masters seemed to fly in the face of his apparent true feelings on race. But Jolson often used this persona as a means to introduce white audiences to black culture, and also to make fun of the general idea of “white supremacy.”
Unlike the way it would be perceived today, in the early 1900s blackface was not considered racially offensive. White men smearing their faces with burnt cork and imitating African-Americans had been common on American stages since the 1830s, and was just one form of the coarse humor that all racial and ethnic groups were subjected to at that time.
When black audiences saw The Jazz Singer, a Harlem newspaper stated that The Jazz Singer was “one of the greatest pictures ever produced,” and that, “Every colored performer is proud of him (Jolson).” Film historian Charles Musser notes that “African-Americans’ embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures. In an era when African-Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend.”
He was a supporter and defender of African-Americans. Jolson promoted the play Appearances by black playwright Garland Anderson, tried (unsuccessfully) to have an all-black dance team featured in his Broadway show—at a time when black people were banned from Broadway productions, demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway (when Cab did duets with him in The Singing Kid), and regularly socialized with prominent black stars of the day. He is credited with helping pave the way for such legends as Duke Ellington, Ethyl Waters and Louis Armstrong.
But off-stage, Jolson wasn’t known to be a nice man. Though kind and sentimental, he had an enormous ego. He also could be arrogant, surly and a braggart and many of his contemporaries disliked him. Most of his fellow performers said he was deeply insecure. According to Groucho Marx, Jolson was so insecure he would leave the water faucet running in his dressing room so he couldn’t hear the applause for the acts that preceded him.
Jolson was the comeback kid of his day. His movie career revitalized his flagging stage career, just as The Al Jolson Story brought him back into the limelight 20 years later. Even after his death, Jolson managed to stay center stage with a memorial consisting of a six-pillar structure towering over a 120-foot waterfall, all within eyesight of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. Inside Hillside Cemetery, graveyard of the stars, is an almost life-size statue of Jolson down on one knee with palms outspread, as if imploring visitors to give him one more chance. Maybe they will some day, but for now Jolson is remembered less for his talent and more for his makeup.