Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson; May 26, 1886 – October 23, 1950) was an American singer, comedian, stage and film actor. At the peak of his career, he was dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer." His performing style was brash and extroverted, and he popularized a large number of songs that benefited from his "shamelessly sentimental, melodramatic approach." Numerous well-known singers were influenced by his music, including
Bing Crosby,Bob Dylan,
David Bowie and others. Dylan once referred to him as "somebody whose life I can feel." Broadway critic
Gilbert Seldes compared him to
the Greek god Pan, claiming that Jolson represented "the concentration of our national health and gaiety."
In the 1930s, Jolson was America's most famous and highest-paid entertainer. Between 1911 and 1928, Jolson had nine sell-out
Winter Garden shows in a row, more than 80 hit records, and 16 national and international tours. Although he is best remembered today as the star of the first
talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), he later starred in a series of successful musical films throughout the 1930s. After the
attack on Pearl Harbor, he was the first star to entertain troops overseas during
World War II. After a period of inactivity, his stardom returned with The Jolson Story (1946), for which
Larry Parks played Jolson, with the singer dubbing for Parks. The formula was repeated in a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). In 1950, he again became the first star to entertain
GIs on active service in the
Korean War, performing 42 shows in 16 days. He died just weeks after returning to the U.S., partly owing to the physical exertion of performing. Defense Secretary
George Marshall posthumously awarded him the
Medal of Merit.
According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, "Jolson was to
Elvis Presley was to
rock 'n' roll." Being the first popular singer to make a spectacular event out of singing a song, he became a
rock star before the dawn of rock music. His specialty was performing on stage runways extending out into the audience. He would run up and down the runway, and across the stage, "teasing, cajoling, and thrilling the audience", often stopping to sing to individual members; all the while the "perspiration would be pouring from his face, and the entire audience would get caught up in the ecstasy of his performance". According to music historian Larry Stempel, "No one had heard anything quite like it before on Broadway." Author Stephen Banfield agreed, writing that Jolson's style was "arguably the single most important factor in defining the modern musical".
Jolson also enjoyed performing in
blackface makeup, a theatrical convention since the mid-19th century. With his unique and dynamic style of singing black music, such as jazz and blues, he was later credited with single-handedly introducing
African-American music to white American audiences. As early as 1911, he became known for fighting against black
Al Jolson was born as Asa Yoelson (
Yiddish: אַסאַ יואלסאָן) in the
Jewish village of
Yiddish: סרעדניק) now known as Seredžius, near
Lithuania, then part of the
Russian Empire. He was the fifth and youngest child of Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858 – December 23, 1945) and Nechama "Naomi" Cantor (1858 – February 6, 1895); his four siblings were Rose, Etta, another sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry). Jolson claimed not to know when he was born, and later chose to claim he was born on May 26, 1886. His one-time sister-in-law, Margaret Weatherwax (a sister of
Ruby Keeler), claimed Jolson was the same age as their father, Ralph (who was born in 1881), and that Jolson was 46 when he married the 18-year-old Ruby in 1928.
Hard times hit the family when his mother, Naomi, died at 37 in early 1895. Following his mother's death, young Asa was in a state of withdrawal for seven months. For a period of time, young Asa spent time at the
St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a progressive reformatory/home for orphans run by the
Xaverian Brothers in
Baltimore (the same school which would later be attended by
Babe Ruth). Upon being introduced to show business in 1895 by entertainer
Al Reeves, Asa and Hirsch became fascinated by the industry, and by 1897 the brothers were singing for coins on local street corners, using the names "Al" and "Harry". They would usually use the money to buy tickets to shows at the
National Theater. Asa and Hirsch spent most of their days working different jobs as a team.