Column by Nick Clooney
''My grandson asked me who Al Jolson was.'' The letter came from E.R. Collins of Cincinnati.
''He says I always told him Al Jolson was the greatest, but never said anything more. When I started to fill him in, I realized I didn't know much about him myself, except "The Jolson Story' movie after the war. My Mom and Dad always told me he was the best entertainer of all time, so I just said the same thing, I suppose. Have you got any ammunition for me the next time my grandson comes home from college?''
You bet. Although it is always dangerous to use words like like ''best'' or ''greatest'' because they are so subjective, aren't they? So we try to find quantifiable numbers which can tell us how those in the past stacked up against their contemporaries, not against cur rent standards. Numbers never tell the whole story, either, but they are sometimes all we have.
When Al Jolson was on top, the rules were entirely different. His heyday came before radio and talking pictures. Although records were already a major factor, the methods of counting the number sold were fragmented and rudimentary. More important was the sale of sheet music on songs made popular by an artist - a market that, for the most part, no longer exists.
On the other hand, it is easy to say that Bing Crosby was the most successful entertainer in the era defined by the rise of radio, talking pictures and record sales; the era that ended with the dominance of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. The numbers are indisputable. Bing sold more records, had higher radio ratings and made the top ten box office chart more than any other singer of his generation by a factor of two or three.
Al Jolson was the towering figure of the previous generation. Although Al was only 17 years older than Bing, his era was based on live entertainment. Those who watched him, from his electrifying debut as solo artist on Broadway in 1911, say that the world had never seen his combination of voice, drama, energy, humor and personal rapport with the audience.
It must be added that 1997 audiences would have a very hard time relating to Al Jolson's frequent resort to ''blackface'' performance. When he began, ''blackface'' was still a show business staple, part of the ''minstrel'' tradition. Even some black entertainers worked in blackface and many white stars did. The humor was racist and demeaning. Songs were - at best - patronizing and - at worst - deeply insulting.
Today, casual readers will cringe at even the titles of some of the hit songs at the turn of the century. A residue of that minstrel tradition remained in movies even into the 1950s. Of course, Mr. Jolson didn't invent his times, he was a product of them.
And the times should not obscure his accomplishments. In records alone, a quantifiable measurement, he was impressive. He had two songs that hit the top in 1912, then in 1913, went to the top with ''You Made Me Love You.'' He had hits every year, including 1918's ''Rock- A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.'' He mined the South again in 1920 with ''Swanee.''
In 1922 it was ''April Showers'' and ''Toot-Toot-Tootsie.'' In 1924 he recorded the West Coast anthem, ''California, Here I Come.'' The next year it was ''All Alone.'' Each of these got to the No. 1 position, so when he scored in 1926 with ''I'm Sittin' On Top of the World,'' the lyrics could have been autobiographical.
Remember, this was only records and sheet music. He virtually owned Broadway at this time and people still talk about his personal appearances around the country, including many times here in Cincinnati.
When, in 1927, motion pictures decided to take the giant leap into sound, no one was surprised that it was Al Jolson they decided to star. ''The Jazz Singer'' and the song ''My Mammy'' became part of American pop culture.
Inevitably, the white heat of his success cooled. While Al remained a popular figure in the 1930s and early 1940s, he had clearly retreated from the first rank of American entertainers. Until the post-war films ''The Jolson Story'' and ''Jolson Sings Again'' rocketed to the box office stratosphere. Jolie was on top again, on the charts and on the radio. He even made a hit duet with Bing Crosby. In 1950, he went to Korea to entertain American troops. He was a smash. On his return, he was hospitalized. He died at age 64. His records remain in print to this day.
Tell that to your grandson, E.R.
Freelance columnist Nick Clooney writes for The Post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Publication date: 09-10-97