Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Asa Yoelson, 26 May 1886, Russia; d 23 October 1950, San Francisco) Singer, songwriter. Billed himself as 'The World's Greatest Entertainer', not without justification: an inspiration for Bing Crosby and many others, for his dedication to pleasing his audience, not for his style. He emigrated to the USA as a child, broke into vaudeville before his voice broke, then turned to whistling; he had an act with brother Hirsch (Harry) as 'The Hebrew and the Cadet'. Harry was the first of the two to perform in blackface in 1902; later Al became famous for it and Harry was accused of doing it to cash in.

Al's first recording was for Victor '11 ('That Haunting Melody', song by George M. Cohan); he allegedly had trouble standing still in order to sing into acoustic horn. Invented catchphrase 'You ain't heard nothin' yet!' around '06; allegedly used it '18 at a benefit when he followed Caruso. He appeared in ten Broadway shows '11-31 including Sinbad '18; starred in the first talking picture The Jazz Singer '27 (though not a jazz singer by any definition); his second film The Singing Fool '28 was the first talkie in many cinemas hastily rewired for sound. He married his third wife actress Ruby Keeler '28; he had broken into vaudeville by singing from the audience, then in '29 sang 'Liza' to her from the audience at the Broadway première of Show Girl. He was successful on radio (with Paul Whiteman '33-4, The Shell Chateau '35-6, etc). They separated '39; he was devastated and his career was faltering; he talked her into co-starring in Hold On To Your Hats '40 but she left before the Broadway opening; the show was a hit, but his voice failed and he had to close it after 158 performances.

He made ten more films '29-45; entertained troops from North Africa to Alaska during WWII; went to Hollywood '44 as a producer and considered playing himself in a biopic, but looked at himself in the mirror and decided against it. Larry Parks (1914-75) played Jolson in The Jolson Story '46 and Jolson Sings Again '49, but Jolson sang in the soundtracks and his voice was never better. Teenagers bought his records because they thought he looked like Parks. (Parks was nominated for the best actor Oscar for the first picture, but later debased himself before the House Unamerican Activities Committee; his film career was ruined, but he probably would have been blacklisted no matter what he did). Jolson entertained troops in Japan and Korea '50 a month before he died.

Jolson was most famous for 'My Mammy', 'Sonny Boy', and George Gershwin's 'Swanee', delivered in blackface with white gloves and on one knee, using emotional declaration at the expense of melody. He may never have written anything, but was an expert at demanding co-writing credits because he could make a song a hit by performing it: credits incl. 'Avalon', 'California, Here I Come', 'Me And My Shadow', 'Back In Your Own Back Yard', 'All My Love', 'There's A Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder', 'The Anniversary Song', others; collaborators included Billy Rose, Ray Henderson (see De Sylva, Brown and Henderson), Shelton Brooks (see Sophie Tucker) and Harry Akst, also his accompanist for many years (b 15 August 1894, NYC; d 31 March '63, Hollywood). He was also famous for 'April Showers', 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'Bye', 'Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody' (revived by Jerry Lewis '56, Aretha Franklin '61). Four sets of 78s topped the album chart '46-9; The Best Of Jolson '62 was a no. 40 LP. He was the biggest name in showbiz for decades, but his style died with him.