|The Man|Biographies|Manheim Biography
November 1993 , Volume: 10
by James M. Manheim
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
Patinkin 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
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.
Books 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. Periodicals
Life, November 6, 1950. New York Times, October 24, 1950. Time,
October 30, 1950. Village Voice, January 7, 1981.
~~ James M. Manheim