Al Jolson Biography

Asa Yoelson, 26 May 1886, Srednick, Lithuania (his exact date of birth is uncertain), d. 23 October 1950, San Francisco, California, USA. Shortly before the turn of the century, Jolson’s father, Moses Yoelson, emigrated to the USA. In a few years he was able to send for his wife and four children, who joined him in Washington DC. Moses Yoelson was cantor at a synagogue and had hopes that his youngest son, Asa, would adopt this profession. After the death of their mother, the two sons, Asa and Hirsch, occasionally sang on street corners for pennies. Following the example of his brother, who had changed his name to Harry, Asa became Al. When family disagreements arose after his father remarried, Al went to New York where his brother had gone to try his luck in showbusiness. For food-money, he sang at McGirk’s, a saloon/restaurant in New York’s Bowery and later sang with military bands during the time of the Spanish-American War. Back in Washington, he attracted attention when, as a member of the audience at the city’s Bijou Theater, he joined in the singing with entertainer Eddie Leonard. The vaudevillian was so impressed he offered the boy a job, singing from the balcony as part of the act. Al refused but ran away to join a theatrical troupe. This venture was short-lived and a week or so later he was back home but had again altered the spelling of his name, this time to Al Joelson. In the audience, again at the Bijou, he sang during the stage act of burlesque queen Aggie Beller. Once more he was made an offer and this time he did not refuse. This job was also brief, because he was not content to merely sing from the balcony and Beller would not allow him to join her on the stage.

Joelson moved to New York and found work as a singing waiter. He also appeared in the crowd scenes of a play which survived for only three performances. Calling himself Harry Joelson, he formed a double act with Fred E. Moore but abandoned this when his voice broke. Reverting to the name Al he now joined his brother Harry and formed an act during which he whistled songs until his voice matured. The brothers teamed up with Joe Palmer to form the act Joelson, Palmer and Joelson, but again changed the spelling to shorten the space taken on playbills. In 1905 Harry dropped out of the act and the following year Al Jolson was on his own. In San Francisco he established a reputation as an exciting entertainer and coined the phrase which later became an integral part of his performance: ‘All right, all right, folks - you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!’ In 1908 Jolson was hired by Lew Dockstader, leader of one of the country’s two most famous minstrel shows, and quickly became the top attraction. Around this time he also formed a lifelong association with Harry Akst, a song plugger who later wrote songs including ‘Dinah’, ‘Baby Face’ and ‘Am I Blue?’. Akst was especially useful to Jolson in finding songs suitable for his extrovert style. In 1911 Jolson opened at the Winter Garden in New York City, where he was a huge success. That same year he made his first records, reputedly having to be strapped to a chair as his involuntary movements were too much for the primitive recording equipment. Also in 1911 he suggested that the Winter Garden show be taken on tour, sets and full cast, orchestra and all, something that had never been done before.

In 1912 he again did something new, putting on Sunday shows at the Garden so that other showbusiness people could come and see him. Although he sang in ‘blackface’ for the regular shows, local bylaws on religious observance meant that the Sunday shows had to be put on without sets and make-up. He devised an extended platform so that he could come out in front of the proscenium arch, thus allowing him to be closer to his audience with whom he was already having a remarkable love affair.

Among his song successes at this time were ‘The Spaniard That Blighted My Life’ and ‘You Made Me Love You’. One night, when the show at the Garden was overrunning, he sent the rest of the cast off stage and simply sang to the audience who loved it. From then on, whenever he felt inclined, which was often, he would ask the audience to choose if they wanted to see the rest of the show or just listen to him. Invariably, they chose him. Significantly enough, on such occasions, the dismissed cast rarely went home, happily sitting in the wings to watch him perform. By 1915 Jolson was being billed as ‘America’s Greatest Entertainer’ and even great rivals such as Eddie Cantor and George Jessel had to agree with this title. In 1916 Jolson made a silent film but found the experiment an unsatisfactory experience. Jolson’s 1918 Broadway show was Sinbad and his song successes included ‘Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody’, ‘Swanee’ and ‘My Mammy’. In 1919 he again tried something unprecedented for a popular entertainer, a concert at the Boston Opera House where he was accompanied by the city’s symphony orchestra. Jolson’s 1921 show was Bombo which opened at a new theatre which bore his name, Jolson’s 59th Street Theater. The songs in the show included ‘My Mammy’, ‘April Showers’, ‘California Here I Come’ and ‘Toot Toot Tootsie (Good-Bye)’.

During the mid-20s Jolson tried some more new departures; in 1925 he opened in Big Boy, which had a real live horse in the cast, and in 1927 he performed on the radio. Of even more lasting significance, in 1926 he returned to the film studios to participate in an experimental film, a one-reel short entitled April Showers in which he sang three songs, his voice recorded on new equipment being tested by Vitaphone, a company which had been acquired by Warner Brothers Records. Although this brief film remained only a curio, and was seen by few people, the system stirred the imagination of Sam Warner, who believed that this might be what the company needed if it was to stave off imminent bankruptcy. They decided to incorporate sound into a film currently in pre-production. This was The Jazz Singer which, as a stage show, had run for three years with George Jessel in the lead. Jessel wanted more money than the Warners could afford and Eddie Cantor turned them down flat. They approached Jolson, cannily inviting him to put money into the project in return for a piece of the profits. The Jazz Singer (1927) was a silent film into which it was planned to interpolate a song or two but Jolson, being Jolson, did it his way, calling out to the orchestra leader, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!’ before launching into ‘Toot Toot Tootsie’. The results were sensational and the motion picture industry was revolutionized overnight. The Warner brothers were saved from bankruptcy and Jolson’s piece of the action made him even richer than he already was. His follow-up film, The Singing Fool, (1928) included a song especially written for him by the team of De Sylva, Brown And Henderson. Although they treated the exercise as a joke, the results were a massive hit and Jolson’s recording of ‘Sonny Boy’ became one of the first million sellers.

Although Jolson’s films were popular and he was one of the highest paid performers in Hollywood, the cinema proved detrimental to his career. The cameras never fully captured the magic that had made him so successful on Broadway. Additionally, Jolson’s love for working with a live audience was not satisfied by the film medium. His need to sing before a live audience was so overpowering that when his third wife, the dancer Ruby Keeler, opened on Broadway in Show Girl, he stood up in his seat and joined in with her big number, ‘Liza’. He completely upstaged Keeler, who would later state that this was one of the things about him that she grew to hate the most. Jolson continued to make films, among them Mammy (1930) which included ‘Let Me Sing And I’m Happy’, and Big Boy (1930), generally cited as the film which came closest to capturing the essence of his live performances. Back on Broadway in 1931 with Wonder Bar, Jolson was still popular and was certainly an extremely rich man, but he was no longer the massive success that he had been in the 20s. For a man who sang for many reasons, of which money was perhaps the least important, this was a very bad time. Fuelling his dissatisfaction was the fact that Keeler, whose film career he had actively encouraged and helped, was a bigger box-office attraction.

Despite spreading a thin talent very wide, Keeler rose while Jolson fell. In 1932 he stopped making records and that year there were no shows or films, even though there were still offers. He made a film with Keeler, Go Into Your Dance (1935) in which he sang ‘About A Quarter To Nine’, and participated in an early television pilot. Not surprisingly for a man who had tried many new ventures in showbusiness, Jolson was impressed by the medium and confidently predicted its success, but his enthusiasm was not followed up by producers. He made more films in the late 30s, sometimes cameos, occasionally rating third billing but the great days appeared to be over. Even his return to Broadway, in 1940 in Hold Onto Your Hats, was fated to close when he was struck down with pneumonia. The same year Jolson’s marriage to Keeler ended acrimoniously.

On 7 December 1941, within hours of learning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Jolson volunteered to travel overseas to entertain troops. Appearing before audiences of young men, to whom he was at best only a name, Jolson found and captured a new audience. All the old magic worked and during the next few years he toured endlessly, putting on shows to audiences of thousands or singing songs to a couple of GIs on street corners. With Harry Akst as his accompanist, he visited Europe and the UK, Africa and the Near and Far East theatres of war. Eventually, tired and sick, he returned to the USA where doctors advised him not to resume his overseas travels. Jolson agreed but instead began a punishing round of hospital visits on the mainland. Taken ill again, he was operated on and a part of one lung was removed. The hospital visits had a happier ending when he met Erle Galbraith, a civilian X-ray technician on one of the army bases he visited, who became his fourth wife.

The war over, Jolson made a cameo appearance in a film and also performed on a couple of records, but it appeared as though his career, temporarily buoyed by the war, was ended. However, a man named Sidney Skolsky had long wanted to make a film about Jolson’s life and, although turned down flat by all the major studios, eventually was given the go-ahead by Harry Cohn, boss of the ailing independent Columbia Pictures, who happened to be a Jolson fan. After surmounting many difficulties, not least that Jolson, despite being over 60 years old, wanted to play himself on the screen, the film was made. Starring Larry Parks as Jolson and with a superb soundtrack on which Jolson sang all his old favourites in exciting new arrangements by Morris Stoloff, The Jolson Story (1946) was a hit. Apart from making a great deal of money for Columbia, who thus became the second film company Jolson had saved, it put the singer back in the public eye with a bang. He signed a deal with Decca Records for a series of records using the same Stoloff arrangements and orchestral accompaniment. All the old songs became hugely popular as did ‘The Anniversary Song’ which was written especially for a scene in the film in which his father and mother dance on their wedding anniversary (Hollywood having conveniently overlooked the fact that his real mother had died when he was a boy). The film and the records, particularly ‘The Anniversary Song’, were especially popular in the UK.

In the USA Jolson’s star continued to rise and after a string of performances on radio, where he became a regular guest on Bing Crosby’s show, he was given his own series, which ran for four years and helped encourage Columbia to create another Jolson precedent. This was to make a sequel to a biopic. Jolson Sings Again (1949) recaptured the spirit and energy of the first film and was another huge success. In 1950 Jolson was again talking to television executives and this time it appeared that something would come from the discussions. Before anything could be settled, however, the US Army became involved in the so-called ‘police action’ in Korea and Jolson immediately volunteered to entertain the troops. With Harry Akst again accompanying him, he visited front-line soldiers during a punishing tour. Exhausted, he returned to the USA where he was booked to appear on Crosby’s radio show which was scheduled to be aired from San Francisco. On 23 October 1950, while playing cards with Akst and other long-time friends at the St. Francis hotel, he complained of chest pains and died shortly afterwards.

Throughout the 20s and into the mid-30s, Jolson was the USA’s outstanding entertainer and in 1925 his already hyperbolic billing was changed to ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’. Unfortunately, latter-day audiences have only his films and records to go on. None of the films can be regarded as offering substantial evidence of his greatness. His best records are those made with Stoloff for the soundtrack of the biographical films, by which time his voice was deeper and, anyway, recordings cannot recapture the stage presence which allowed him to hold audiences in their seats for hours on end. Although it is easy to be carried away by the enthusiasm of others, it would appear to be entirely justified in Jolson’s case. Unlike many other instances of fan worship clouding reality, even Jolson’s rivals acknowledged that he was the best. In addition, most of those who knew him disliked him as a man, but this never diminished their adulation of him as an entertainer. On the night he died they turned out the lights on Broadway, and traffic in Times Square was halted. It is hard to think of any subsequent superstar who would be granted, or who has earned, such testimonials. There has been only a small handful of entertainers, in any medium, of which it can be truly said, we shall never see their like again. Al Jolson was one of that number.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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