AL JOLSON BIOGRAPHY & FILMOGRAPHY:
Asa Yoelson was born in Lithuania on May 26, 1886, the son of Rabbi Moses Reuben Yoelson and his wife Naomi. Rabbi Yoelson immigrated to the United States in 1891, and in 1894 was able to bring the family to him, to their new home in Washington, D.C. Sadly, Naomi Yoelson died later that same year, leaving eight year-old Asa and his family bereft.
The boy who would grow to be known as Al Jolson to the world was first influenced by Al Reeves and his Big Burlesque Review. Al Jolson and his older brother Hirsch (Harry) were enthralled, and were soon singing for coins on street corners. They would then use the money they earned to buy tickets to see more shows at the National Theater.
Jolson was hired as an usher with Walter L. Maim’s Circus in 1902, but when Maim heard him singing he was given a part singing in the Indian Medicine Side Show portion of the circus. After the circus closed by the end of 1902, Al was again looking for a job and in May of 1903 he got a part in the Dainty Duchess Burlesquers burlesque show, but that show also closed within the year.
Al and Harry, as a vaudeville team, worked for the William Morris Agency, and met Joe Palmer. The three men were soon a trio and worked on a nationwide vaudeville tour, but the times were changing and audiences were more interested in spending their money in nickelodeon theaters with “moving pictures”. In 1905 the trio was split following a disagreement between the brothers, and Al and Joe, the remaining duo, were not very successful together. By 1906 Al Jolson was again a solo performer.
Al Jolson lived in San Francisco, California, for a time where he was a regular performer singing vaudeville at the Globe and Wigwam Theater, but money troubles caused him to return to New York where he met Lew Dockstader, the producer and star of Dockstader’s Minstrels. Al Jolson became a part of the show as a blackface performer.
Wearing blackface makeup was a “theatrical convention” originating with the early minstrel shows, and Jolson used it purely for effect to highlight his performances and his style of singing as he introduced musical styles he loved to perform like jazz, ragtime, and the blues. It must be noted that Al Jolson fought regularly against discrimination on stage and in his movies, promoting black artists and demanding equal treatment.
Jolson’s first big break came in 1911 when he was cast in “La Belle Paree” at the Winter Garden. His voice and his energetic style captured audiences and he became a singing star, with a continuing series of smash hits until he retired from the stage in 1926. It was during his years at the Winter Garden when audiences became accustomed to hearing his signature line, “you ain’t heard nothing yet”. His first starring role as an actor came in 1916 when he was cast in the play “Robinson Crusoe, Jr.”.
In 1918 Jolson starred in “Sinbad”, a play which included the song “Swanee”, George Gershwin’s first hit recording, and the play in which Jolson added the song “My Mammy”. By 1920, Al Jolson was the biggest star on Broadway. His success continued with his next play, “Bombo”, playing on Broadway and then touring nationwide. Al Jolson was the most popular performer on Broadway and in vaudeville. He would return to Broadway in 1931 to star in another play, “Wonder Bar”.
Although he had starred in a 1926 short subject talking film, “A Plantation Act”, it was his performance in 1927 in “The Jazz Singer” for which he is most remembered. The Jazz Singer was the first nationally distributed feature film that included dialogue sequences as well as music and sound effects.
Al Jolson continued to work with Warner Brothers, starring in his first all talking picture ,“The Singing Fool”, in 1928. Jolson’s recording of “Sonny Boy” from the movie is the first American record to sell one million copies. He and Warner Brothers also made “Say it with Songs” (1929), “Mammy” (1930), and “Big Boy” (1930).
In 1933 Jolson worked with United Artists, starring in “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum”, directed by Lewis Milestone, and featuring the music of Richard Rodgers. Again working for Warner Brothers, he then reprised his role from his Broadway play in the film version of “Wonder Bar” in 1934. The movie included numbers staged by Busby Berkeley. Then, in 1935, Jolson appeared in “Go Into Your Dance”, which is the only film where he co-starred with his wife, Ruby Keeler. His last movie with Warner Brothers was 1936’s “The Singing Kid”, which also featured singer and bandleader Cab Calloway.
He next co-starred with Alice Faye and Tyrone Power in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Rose of Washington Square” in 1939. Although he would have small roles and make guest appearances in more films, this is the last feature length film the Al Jolson starred in.
In 1946 “The Jolson Story”, a film biography of Al Jolson, was released and became one of the biggest successes of the year. The film relates the story of Al Jolson’s life, and although he did not star in the film, he did have a small acting part, and the movie did feature his voice. The movie made Al Jolson once again the top singer for the American public, and lead to his signing a new contract with Decca Records.
Throughout his career Al Jolson had been popular on radio programs, although many of them have been lost. From 1936 to 1939, he had his own radio show called “Al Jolson’s Café Trocadero” (soon to be renamed “The Al Jolson Program”). There were two performances each Tuesday evening (one for each coast) and Jolson was joined on the program each week by Martha Raye and Sid Silvers. Some of their guest stars were Mischa Auer, Peter Lorre, Jackie Cooper, George Jessel, and ZaSu Pitts.
One of Al Jolson’s more famous radio appearances was on July 12, 1937 when he hosted a tribute to composer George Gershwin who had died the day before.
Also on the radio before the United States entered World War II were “Treasury Hours” where audiences were encouraged to buy Treasury Bonds. On August 13, 1941, Al hosted the seventh in the series, guest starring Henry Fonda, Arch Oboler and Martha Scott.
In June, 1941 Jolson made an appearance on Eddie Cantor’s radio program, where he sang Cantor’s song “Ida! Sweet as Apple Cider!” in celebration of Eddie and Ida Cantor’s 27th wedding anniversary.
In the early 1930’s Al Jolson had introduced the Kraft Music Hall radio program, and in October, 1947, he returned as the host of the program. The program usually included songs by Jolson, a piano piece by Oscar Levant, and guest stars from stage, film, and radio. Al would host the program for seventy-one broadcasts, until May of 1949.
Despite competition from contemporaries like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como, Al Jolson was named by Variety as “Most Popular Male Vocalist” in 1948, and in 1949 as “Personality of the Year” by Variety Clubs of America.
During World War II, Jolson was the first American star to perform for troops in an active war zone. He felt it was his duty to visit the troops and sing for them to try to boost their morale. It is believed that his letters to Steven Early, press secretary to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, spurred the creation of the USO (United Service Organization). Due to his hectic schedule going from camp to camp, and the working conditions (in foxholes and bunkers, etc.), he caught malaria and lost a lung. But, when the Korean War began, he was just as determined that he needed to go there and boost the morale of American troops. In 1950, he was informed that the USO had been disbanded due to lack of funding, and, shelving his plans for another movie and a television program, he paid his own way to Korea, where he performed 42 shows in 16 days.
When he returned to America from Korea he agreed to star in a new movie for RKO Pictures called “Stars and Stripes for Ever”, which was to be about a USO troupe in the South Pacific during World War II. However, the movie was never to be made because on October 23, 1950 Al Jolson died of a massive heart attack in his hotel room in San Francisco at the age of 64.
Al Jolson is considered the “first openly Jewish man to become an entertainment star in America”, and during his career he was known as “the world’s greatest entertainer”.
The Medal of Merit was awarded posthumously to Al Jolson by Defense Secretary George Marshall, saying, “to whom this country owes a debt which cannot be repaid”. Al Jolson has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: for motion pictures, for recordings, and for radio.
•1923 Mammy's Boy (unfinished)
•1926 A Plantation Act
•1927 The Jazz Singer
•1928 The Singing Fool
•1929 Hollywood Snapshots No. 11 (short subject)
•1929 Sonny Boy (Cameo)
•1929 Say It with Songs
•1929 New York Nights (Cameo)
•1930 Show Girl in Hollywood (Cameo)
•1930 Big Boy
•1933 Hallelujah, I'm a Bum
•1934 Wonder Bar
•1935 Go Into Your Dance
•1935 Paramount Headliner: Broadway Highlights No. 1 (short subject)
•1936 The Singing Kid
•1938 Hollywood Handicap (short subject)
•1939 Rose of Washington Square
•1939 Hollywood Cavalcade
•1939 Swanee River
•1945 Rhapsody in Blue (brief scene with Jolson in blackface introducing "Swanee")
•1946 The Jolson Story (double and singing voice for Larry Parks with brief onscreen appearance)
•1947 Screen Snapshots: Off the Air (short subject)
•1949 Jolson Sings Again (singing voice for Larry Parks)
•1949 Oh, You Beautiful Doll (voice only)
•1950 Screen Snapshots: Hollywood's Famous Feet (short subject) (narrator)
•1951 Memorial to Al Jolson, documentary — Columbia Pictures
•1955 The Great Al Jolson, documentary, Columbia Pictures
•1911 La Belle Paree
•1911 Vera Violetta
•1912 The Whirl of Society
•1913 The Honeymoon Express
•1915 Children of the Ghetto
•1916 Robinson Crusoe, Jr.
•1925 Big Boy
•1925 Artists and Models of 1925 (added to cast in 1926)
•1926 Big Boy (revival)
•1931 The Wonder Bar
•1940 Hold on to Your Hats
•1911 That Haunting Melodie (Jolson's first hit.)
•1912 Ragging the Baby to Sleep
•1912 The Spaniard That Blighted My Life
•1913 That Little German Band
•1913 You Made Me Love You
•1914 Back to the Carolina You Love
•1916 Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula
•1916 I Sent My Wife to the Thousand Isles
•1918 I'm All Bound Round With the Mason Dixon Line
•1918 Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody
•1919 Tell That to the Marines
•1919 I'll Say She Does
•1919 I've Got My Captain Working for Me Now
•1921 O-H-I-O (O-My! O!)
•1921 April Showers
•1922 Angel Child
•1922 Coo Coo'
•1922 Oogie Oogie Wa Wa
•1922 That Wonderful Kid From Madrid
•1922 Toot, Toot, Tootsie
•1924 California, Here I Come
•1924 I Wonder What's Become of Sally?
•1925 All Alone
•1926 I'm Sitting on Top of the World
•1926 When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along)
•1927 My Mammy
•1928 Back in Your Own Backyard
•1928 There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder
•1928 Sonny Boy
•1929 Little Pal
•1929 Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)
•1930 Let Me Sing and I'm Happy
•1932 The Cantor (A Chazend'l Ofn Shabbos)
•1933 You Are Too Beautiful
•1946 Ma Blushin' Rosie
•1946 Anniversary Song
•1947 Alexander's Ragtime Band
•1947 Carolina in the Morning
•1947 About a Quarter to Nine
•1947 Waiting for the Robert E. Lee
•1947 Golden Gate
•1947 When You Were Sweet Sixteen
•1947 If I Only Had a Match
•1949 After You've Gone
•1949 Is It True What They Say About Dixie?
•1950 Are You Lonesome Tonight?