During the first half of the 20th Century, the most famous earth-bound show business celebrity was Al Jolson. For nearly 40 years, Jolson was known worldwide as "The World's Greatest Entertainer" and with just cause. Jolson was possessed with a charisma reserved for a select few entertainers throughout the 20th Century including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Acclaim for Jolson was so great that he was one of the three most imitated men on the planet with the other two being Charlie Chaplin and James Cagney. Jolson was the first bonafide modern superstar of the 20th Century who was the first to create the public perception that the entertainer singing the song was the big event --- not the song itself. The view that Jolson's interpretation of a song was just as important as the song itself was ultra-modern at the time. His fame was so huge after two decades on Broadway and selling millions of records that when he took the gamble and starred in the first feature length film with sound, "The Jazz Singer" (WB, 1927), Jolsonmania reached new popularity heights by garnering fans worldwide, who clamored for more "talkies" starring Al Jolson. Toward the end of his life, Columbia Pictures released two motion pictures based on Jolson's life, "The Jolson Story" (Col, 1946) and "Jolson Sings Again" (Col, 1949) that grossed millions of dollars. Riding the crest of the two biopics, Jolson re-recorded all of his old hits and again sold millions of records. He then took over a popular radio show hosted by one of the most acclaimed singers in the country, Bing Crosby, and again made it the most popular radio show on the planet.
From the moment he exploded on Broadway, Al Jolson dominated the American stage from 1911 until his last Broadway show in 1940. He took his shows on tour throughout the United States so the rest of the country could see him in person. Jolson was like an American folk hero of the teens and 1920s who captured the imagination of the public who took him to their hearts. From 1911 through 1928, Al Jolson was the hottest star on the planet. Jolson had nine sell-out Winter Garden shows in a row and more than a dozen national tours. For those lucky enough to see Jolson perform live on stage, the appeal was instant as his personality and style of delivery seemed to make people feel that he was performing just for them even when he was singing in a 5,000 seat auditorium. There have been dozens of quotes from Broadway critics and superstars of the time describing Jolson's aura being almost supernatural. Maurice Chevalier once stated that the moment he saw Jolson perform on stage he felt like giving up and going home to France as he could never match Jolson's caliber as a performer and singer.
In 1911, Al Jolson made his first commercial recording, a George M. Cohan ditty called "That Haunting Melody," and during the next four decades would rank in Billboard's Top 100 more than 80 times with no less than 21 number one hit songs. Many of Al Jolson's greatest hits were introduced by Jolson himself during the runs of his Broadway shows. Numerous songs from "The Great American Songbook" were introduced by Jolson including "You Made Me Love You," "April Showers," "Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," "Swanee," and "California Here I Come." Jolson's hit recording, "Sonny Boy," became the biggest selling record of 1928 when it was released simultaneously with "The Singing Fool" (WB, 1928) whose box office grosses reached a staggering $4,000.000. Jolson took a hiatus from commercial recordings during the 1930s and resumed his commercial recording work following the release of "The Jolson Story" (Col, 1946) with a dizzying success for a man well into his sixties. Jolson's Decca album, "Al Jolson In Songs He Made Famous" remained at the top of the Billboard charts for 25 weeks. Simultaneously, the breakout hit song from "The Jolson Story" (Col, 1946), "Anniversary Song," sold a million copies. Today it would be considered platinum.
Al Jolson is perhaps best remembered today as the star of the first feature length sound film, "The Jazz Singer" (WB, 1927). A worldwide clamor for more talking films followed and Jolson delivered with the biggest box office hit of its day: "The Singing Fool" (WB, 1928). Jolson later starred in a string of moderately successful musical films throughout the 1930s. After a period of semi-retirement in the late 1930s, Al Jolson captured the imagination of the public when he became one of the first A-list celebs to entertain allied troops during World War II. This set the stage for the greatest comeback in theatrical history as Columbia Pictures, trading on Jolson's popularity with the American serviceman, released "The Jolson Story" (Col, 1946) and it equally successful sequel, "Jolson Sings Again" (Col, 1949). JSA ended up being the box office champ of 1949.
When the United States entered World War II, Al Jolson became the first superstar to entertain Allied troops overseas. The heroics of the middle-aged performer captured the imagination of the American public and revived Jolson's popularity to the point that Columbia Pictures greenlighted a multi-million dollar film project based on Jolson's life. In September of 1950, Jolson was again the first superstar to entertain United Nations troops in Korea. Jolson performed 42 shows in 16 days and, physically exhausted, died only one month after returning to Los Angeles from Korea. Two months later, President Harry S. Truman posthumously awarded Al Jolson the Medal of Merit, at that time America's highest civilian award. On behalf of President Truman, Secretary of Defense George Marshall awarded Jolson's widow, Erle Jolson and their son, Albert Jolson, the Medal of Merit award in a small ceremony in Marshall's Washington D.C. office.
THE JOLSON LEGACY
Al Jolson left a marvelously rich legacy to the world. The fact that Al Jolson was the biggest and most influential entertainer of the first half of the 20th Century is inarguable. The esteem which his fellow show business professionals held for him was legendary. Jolson impressions were common well into the 1970s, amazing for a man gone for a generation. Al Jolson has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard:
1716 Vine Street for his importance to the recording industry;
6622 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to motion pictures;
6750 Hollywood Boulevard for his achievements in radio.
On October 14, 2000, a Golden Palm Star was dedicated to Al Jolson at 128 S. Palm Canyon in Palm Springs, California.
On September 1, 1994, the United States Postal Service honored Jolson by issuing a 29-cent postage stamp. Al Jolson's widow, Erle Krasna, performed the unveiling at a ceremony in Manhattan's Lincoln Center. The stamp was one of a series honoring popular American singers including Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole and Ethel Merman.
Most recently, in the summer of 2006, the street in front of the Shubert's legendary Winter Garden Theatre was renamed "Al Jolson Way."