Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson; May 26, 1886 – October 23, 1950) was an American singer, comedian, and 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 many songs that benefited from his "shamelessly sentimental, melodramatic approach."
In the 1920s, 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 best remembered today as the star of the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), he starred in a series of successful musical films during 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 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 jazz, blues, and ragtime what 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 wrote that Jolson's style was "arguably the single most important factor in defining the modern musical".
Jolson has been called "the king of blackface" performers, a theatrical convention since the mid-19th century. With his dynamic style of singing black music, such as jazz and blues, he became widely successful by extracting African-American music and popularizing it for white American audiences who were otherwise not receptive to the originators. Despite his promotion and perpetuation of black stereotypes, his work was sometimes well-regarded by black publications and he has sometimes been credited for fighting against black discrimination on Broadway as early as 1911. In an essay written in the 21st century, Tim Gioia of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia remarked, "If blackface has its shameful poster boy, it is Al Jolson", showcasing Jolson's complex legacy in American society.
Al Jolson was born as Asa Yoelson (Yiddish: אַסאַ יואלסאָן) in the Jewish village of Srednike (Yiddish: סרעדניק) now known as Seredžius, near Kaunas in Lithuania, part of the Russian Empire. He was the fifth and youngest child of Moses Rubin Yoelson (c. 1858 – December 23, 1945) and Nechama "Naomi" Cantor (c. 1858 – February 6, 1895); his four siblings were Rose (c. 1879-1939), Etta (c. 1880-1948), another sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry) (c. 1882-1953). Jolson did not know his date of birth, as birth records were not kept at that time in that region, and he gave his birth year as 1885.
In 1891, his father, who was qualified as a rabbi and cantor, moved to New York City to secure a better future for his family. By 1894, Moses Yoelson could afford to pay the fare to bring Nechama and their four children to the U.S. By the time they arrived—as steerage passengers on the S/S Umbria arriving at the Port of New York on April 9, 1894—he had found work as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where the family was reunited.
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.