Al Jolson Home Page|The Man|Jolson's Legacy|Passing of the Jazz Singer|Eulogies|George Jessel

AL JOLSON and GEORGE JESSEL, two names that are forever linked in history, through the property of The Jazz Singer. While Jessel starred in the original Broadway production of the play, it was Jolson whose performance in the motion picture adaptation that made history. The true story of how Jolson came to star in the picture is shrouded in myths and legends. But the fact is that although often pictured as rivals, much as Al Jolson was portrayed with Eddie Cantor, Jolson, Jessel and Cantor were friends throughout their lives. Upon Al Jolson's death, on October 23, 1950, it was George Jessel who was asked to deliver the eulogy at his friend's funeral. These were his words:

Click to hear George Jessel's eulogy of Al Jolson
Eulogy for
AL JOLSON
Temple Israel
October 26, 1950
A BREEZE FROM San Francisco Bay and the life of the greatest minstrel that America has ever known is in the balance. A turn of a card -- a telling of a gag -- and within a few moments, a wife, a legion of friends, and a nation are broken-hearted. So it was and so, alas, it is the passing from this earthly scene of Al Jolson. And the voice that once put majesty into the American popular song must from now on come from a disc instead of the heart, from whence it came.

Oh, my friends, I know it is the purpose of the speaker at times like these to voice lofty phrases of consolation about a life full lived and a happy conclusion to a great career. But I, contemporary of Al's, find myself too shocked and torn within to say that all is well, and I dare not lie from this sacred platform to say that I, and we, must rejoice in the fact that now he is at peace. It would be far from the truth, and I would need the spiritual strength of a rabbi, a minister, and a priest combined to do so. The human flesh and the frailty of human nature seem to be the sad order of the day as far as I am concerned.

It will take a long time for the people in my business who have been wounded by this event to become reconciled that this dynamic bundle of energy with its God-given talent that called itself Al Jolson is at peace. The very humanly emotional heart of the theatrical business does not heal so easily, and the tears that must fall from the eyes of the many who miss him already cannot be halted by the spoken word. No, the word will not take the place of his song.

And not only has the entertainment world lost its king, but we cannot cry, "The King is dead -- long live the King!" For there is no one to hold his scepter. Those of us who tarry behind are but pale imitations, mere princelings. And American Jewry suffers as well and I must psychologically inform you of the great inspiration that Al was to the Jewish people in the last forty years. For in 1910 the Jewish people who emigrated from Europe to come here were a sad lot. Their humor came out of their own troubles. Men of thirty-five seemed to take on the attitude of their fathers and grandfathers, they walked with stooped shoulders. When they sang, they sang with lament in their hearts and their voices, always as if they were pleading for help from above, And the older they got, the more they prayed for the return to Jerusalem. Or yearned for the simple little villages where they spent their childhood. And the actors, even the great ones, came on the stage also playing characters like their fathers. Vaudeville and the variety and the musical-comedy stage and the legitimate theater had Ben Welch and Joe Welch, monologists with beards and shabby clothes telling humorous stories that had a tear behind them. Likewise did this happen in legitimate theater. David Warfield in The Auctioneer and many others in plays bewailing the misfortunes that had happened to the Jew. And then there came on the scene a young man, vibrantly pulsing with life and courage, who marched on the stage, head high with the authority of a Roman emperor, with a gaiety that was militant, uninhibited, and unafraid, and told the world that the Jew in America did not only have to sing in sorrow but could shout happily about Dixie, about the Night Boat to Albany, about coming to California, about a girl in Avalon. And when he cried "Mammy" it was in appreciation, not in lament. Jolson is the happiest portrait that can ever be painted about an American of the Jewish faith. Jolson was synonymous with victory at the race track, at the ball game, at anything that he participated in, he would say, "I had the winner, ha, ha, why didn't you ask me?" This was not in bravado alone: this was the quintessence of optimism. Whatever you're in, whatever game you play, feel like you are the winner.

The history of the world does not say enough about how important the song and the singer have been, from the days of old when a man first sang "Yankee Doodle" on the streets of Boston or the soldier in France who first sang "The Marseillaise." But history must record the name Jolson, who in the twilight of his life sang his heart out in a foreign land, to the wounded and to the valiant. I am proud to have basked in the sunlight of his greatness, to have been part of his time, and to have only a few days ago -- this last Sunday night -- hugged him and said, "Good night, Asa, take care of yourself." And now, my friends, I find my faith in good coming back to me. I feel strengthened in heart and mind -- and I would lay my sackcloth and ashes aside and therefore say to my fellow mourners and the little lady who bears Al's name that I am thankful to God that there was and there is an Al Jolson. And I have faith that he will never die in the hearts of people. No, no. No such blot will ever fall on the fair charter of American memories. Baruch adenoi. Praise the Lord. Good night, Al.


Note that this is the text of the eulogy as published by George Jessel, in his book This Way Miss. It differs somewhat from the audio clip, which omits the middle section of the text, and ends a bit differently. They are both presented for your enjoyment!

Click here or on the photo of Al and George to hear an excerpt of the eulogy, as delivered by George Jessel.

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Updated 10 Nov 2003