” I just sing a few little songs. But this man could really galvanize an audience into a frenzy. He could really tear them apart.” –Bing Crosby’s take on Al Jolson.
It might be difficult for today’s younger music audience to fathom, but back in his day Al Jolson was the biggest entertainer in show business, on a par with Elvis Presley or – dare we say it? – Justin Bieber.
During the early part of the 20th century, the name Al Jolson – or Jolie, as he was affectionately known by friends and fans – guaranteed huge, sold-out crowds wherever he played. Not only was he a huge celebrity, he also commanded a huge salary. Jolson might not have been a great singer, but he truly was a stylist, and Jolson’s renditions of Rock-a-Bye your Baby with a Dixie Melody, Swanee, April Showers and My Mammy were among the most popular songs of the era and never failed to bring down the house when he performed them on stage.
Audience liked the emotion
He performed with zest and zeal – or sadness and schmaltz. His emotion rang through with every song he sang, and his audience responded.
Jolson began his career in burlesque and vaudeville, but by 1911 he was headlining at New York’s Winter Garden Theater. Within a month of his debut, Al Jolson was a certified star. By the age of 35, Jolson was the youngest entertainer in American history to have a theatre named after him: Jolson’s 59th Street Theater.
The highlight of Jolson’s career came in 1927 when he performed in the Warner Brothers film The Jazz Singer. It was a role intended for George Jessel, who originated the part on Broadway. But it was Jolson who secured the role and the film became a sensation.
While heralded as the movies’ first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer was still predominantly a silent film, with on-screen titles and a few Jolson musical numbers, such as Toot Toot Tootsie, incorporated into the photoplay, courtesy of the Vitaphone sound system. But in an enthusiastic moment Jolson blurted out some improvised dialogue. So impressed was Sam Warner that he asked for other talking segments that appear sporadically throughout the film.
While a huge success for the Warners studio, The Jazz Singer was eclipsed by Jolson’s follow-up film, The Singing Fool. Jolson’s career had peaked. His subsequent films did not do as well and his career suffered a decline. By the late 1930s he was playing support to the reigning box office champions, such as Tyrone Power and Don Ameche. While he still had a loyal radio audience, by the 1940s his film career was virtually over.
A slump in any show biz personality’s career is difficult, but for a man of Jolson’s tremendous ego, the effect was devastating. His personal life was also in a tailspin as he was divorced by third wife Ruby Keeler in 1939. The separation was apparently acrimonious, as Keeler was later to refer to Jolson as: “the ego that walks like a man.”
Jolson did manage to keep busy, entertaining troops during the Second World War. And finally, he did enjoy a career comeback of sorts when, following the success of the George M. Cohan biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy, Columbia chief Harry Cohn decided to produce a film based on Jolson’s life. A B-contract player named Larry Parks was selected to play Jolson. The Jolson Story proved to be an enormous hit, calling for a sequel, Jolson Sings Again.
While both films veered far from the facts of Jolson’s life, they brought a renewed interest to the legendary entertainer, especially among the younger generation, including a young comedian about to make his mark named Jerry Lewis. Jolson capitalized on this later popularity by performing for servicemen during the Korean conflict. But he also suffered from ill health and on Oct. 23, 1950, Al Jolson succumbed to a fatal coronary.
The entertainment world had lost its first true superstar.
Scott Wallace is a Winnipeg writer.