Al Jolson

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To modern ears, the urgent, pleading singing style of Al Jolson might seem forced or even fraudulent. And let’s not even talk about blackface. In these politically correct times, blackface is unimaginable. That’s the problem in trying to assess Jolson. By far the greatest singer of the teens and twenties, Jolson was truly a man of his time. It takes a leap of faith on our part, and a sensitivity to the past, to appreciate Jolson’s persona and style.

By far the greatest singer of the teens and twenties, Jolson was truly a man of his time. It takes a leap of faith on our part, and a sensitivity to the past, to appreciate Jolson’s persona and style.

The strides he made, the doors he opened were elemental and necessary, but his need to be adored could put people off. Through his efforts, the sound of popular music changed—but the changes ended up leaving him in the past. Just as today’s clichés were once original ideas, Jolson’s style now seems out of date.

His performance style, the way he belted his songs, rolled his eyes (this was all the more visible in contrast to his blackened face), his overemphatic hand gestures, the falling on one knee, were all developed to carry his sound and image to the furthest reaches of the theater. In the days before microphones, Jolson could be heard in the last rows of the second balconies. Even someone sitting in the very back of the house could appreciate the emotion of the song from Jolson’s face and gestures.

Popular songs of the period developed, as did Jolson, out of the minstrel tradition. Ballads descended from the lachrymose songs depicting children begging their fathers to quit the saloons, lovers forced to part after the ball, and bells in the lighthouse tolling the deaths of brave sailors. In fact, the songs of Jolson’s day were similar in style, if not in execution, to those songs in the fifties in which Johnny drove off a bridge, or teenage lovers were forced by society’s cruelties to part.

Emotions were worn on the sleeve, and depth of feeling was indicated in performance (rather than simply by climbing the scale, as it is now). One hundred years ago, a singer employed a catch in the throat, a sob, a wiped-away tear.

Jolson was pivotal in the transition from the square ballad of the 1900s to the syncopated, ragtime, and jazz-influenced rhythms of the new century. Like Elvis (yes Elvis!) and Irving Berlin, Jolson made black music palatable to white audiences. And though his attempts at syncopation may seem ham-handed now, he knew how to propel a song and keep the momentum going until the payoff.

Jolson also led the way into new technologies, unafraid to take chances. He recorded his first sides at the end of 1911. He appeared in what is generally considered the first talkie (or at least the first to get noticed), The Jazz Singer. Another film of his, The Singing Fool, was the most profitably picture of all time until Gone with the Wind. Jolson wasn’t afraid to be heard on radio in an era when many of his Broadway contemporaries considered it beneath them in the same way movie stars shunned early television.

Jolson was also a hit-maker. When he interpolated a song into one of his shows, sheet music sales (with Jolson’s picture on the cover) soared. Publishers vied for the right to print “As performed by Al Jolson at the Winter Garden Theater.” Though George Gershwin and Irving Caesar’s “Swanee” premiered at the Capitol Theater in a revue, Demi-Tasse, it wasn’t until Jolson interpolated it into Sinbad, at the Winter Garden across the street, that the song became a hit. In fact, it was the biggest seller of Gershwin’s career.

Jolson wasn’t one to leave the profits to others—so he became the king of the cut-in—if you wanted Jolie to introduce your song on the stage, you had to give him credit (and royalties) as coauthor. He’d then sing the song on Broadway, tour the show and the song all around the nation, sing it on records, and later introduce it on radio. And when Decca signed him he’d sing the same repertoire again. The songs would be featured in the two Jolson biopics, The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), both smash successes. Writers and publishers got their money’s worth by cutting in Jolson.

Jolson introduced more hit songs than any other performer, with the possible exception of Bing Crosby. Whether he cut himself in is immaterial in that he had fantastic taste. He knew exactly what kind of a song suited his talents and exactly how to put the song over.

Jolson adopted his blackface character around 1899, as a member of the vaudeville act Jolson, Palmer, and Palmer. To Jolson, the blackface was simply a gimmick added to what would otherwise be simply another singing act. Somewhat shy, he also found it easier to portray a character other than himself. He most certainly did not adopt blackface in order to make fun of blacks, nor did he indulge in the stereotypes most often connected with the blackface comic. Jolson simply used the conceit as a means to stand out from other singers. And the blackface and white gloves emphasized Jolson’s eyes, mouth, and hands, especially in the glare of the spotlight. Later in his career, when he had become inextricably linked to the character, he used the makeup to signal that a highlight of the performance was coming up.

Jolson’s ego, selfishness, and disregard for his fellow performers and for the creators of his material are the stuff of legend. With an almost insatiable need to be loved, Jolson was always “on.” He defined himself through his performances and seemed to be alive only when he was the center of attention. But his personal shortcomings pale in comparison to his immense legacy. He was the greatest performer of his time—and just when his popularity would begin to wane, newer generations would find themselves entranced by the Jolson mystique. It’s hard for us now to appreciate fully Jolson’s impact on popular song, through the haze of old movies, scratchy recordings, and faded photographs. We can only take the word of those who were there.

Robert Benchley, writing in the old Life magazine, captured Jolson’s unique effect on audiences: “The word ‘personality’ isn’t quite strong enough for the thing that Jolson has. Unimpressive as the comparison may be to Mr. Jolson, we should say that John the Baptist was the last man to have such power. There is something supernatural at the back of it, or we miss our guess. When Jolson enters, it is as if an electric current has been run along the wires under the seats where the hats are stuck. The house comes to a tumultuous attention. He speaks, rolls his eyes, compresses his lips, and it is all over. You are a member of the Al Jolson Association.” (KB)

Picked it up and ran with it

John Stromberg wrote this tune for Bessie Clayton but she never performed it. Later, when Stromberg and Edgar Smith were writing the score for Fay Templeton’s show, Fiddle Dee Dee, they replaced a song with it. With Smith’s lyrics, the song was a great hit at Weber and Fields Music Hall. Jolson picked up the song and sang it at Sunday concerts at the Winter Garden, then went on to record it in 1946. The Decca record sold over a million copies. The song was then featured in Jolson Sings Again with Jolson providing the soundtrack.Ma Blushin’ Rosie (Ma Posie Sweet)

From pain to fame

Jolson was performing in The Honeymoon Express at the Winter Garden when he dropped down on one knee to ease the pain from an ingrown toenail. Finding himself in this awkward position, he spread his arms as if to envelop the audience—and a cliché was born. The song subsequently proved popular for Fannie Brice, Ruth Etting, Judy Garland, and Harry James.You Made Me Love You

Between lunch and the piano

George Gershwin and Irving Caesar were lunching at Dinty Moore’s restaurant trying to come up with a surefire hit. “Hindustan” was popular at the time and Caesar suggested marrying the one-step rhythms of that song to another locale. The team continued discussing the song while riding on the upper level of a double-decker bus to Gershwin’s apartment. By the time they reached the piano, the song had been sketched out.Swanee

Plagiarism

When lawyers for G. Ricordi, music publishers of Puccini, heard Vincent Rose and Al Jolson’s “Avalon,” they accused the composer of plagiarism. They alleged that the music was based on Puccini’s aria “E lucevan le stele” from Tosca. Ricordi’s attorney’s brought a piano, violin, and trumpet into the courtroom on January 28, 1921. The instrumentalists played the popular song and the attorneys played a phonograph record of the aria. They won the lawsuit and were awarded $25,000 in damages as well as all future royalties from “Avalon.”Avalon

A million copies, a million imitations

This song was introduced by none other than William Frawley, best known as Fred Mertz on the television series I Love Lucy. (Frawley also introduced “Melancholy Baby,” among other songs!) Publisher Saul Borne brought it to Jolson, who interpolated it into the musical Bombo in 1921 and also sang it in The Jazz Singer and then in The Jolson Story. That same year, he recorded it for Decca and sold over a million copies. Jolson famously sang the song down on one knee, launching a million imitations.My Mammy

Parody or not?

The song was written overnight by De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson at the behest of Jolson, who was about to film The Singing Fool. The producers needed a song fast to replace one dropped from the score. Rumor has it that the songwriters meant it as a parody of the heartstring-pulling ballads for which Jolson was known. Whatever the intention, it was a smash hit.Sonny Boy

Unloading in Baton Rouge

Lyricist L. Wolfe Gilbert got the idea for this song while actually watching the steamboat Robert E. Lee unloading its cargo in Baton Rouge. When composer Lewis F. Muir took the song to publisher F.A. Mills, it made no impression and was rejected. A while later, Gilbert came by to pick up the music and Mills told him that the song would be published. Song plugger Tubby Garron showed the number to Al Jolson, who interpolated it into a Winter Garden Sunday concert.Waiting for the Robert E. Lee

Approaching ragtime

Though it is considered a ragtime song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” bears little relationship to traditional ragtime. After the huge success of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899, the first white songwriter to capitalize on the new rhythms and counterpoint was Joseph E. Howard, in the song “Hello, Ma Baby,” which he wrote that very same year. In 1902, Hughie Cannon wrote the ragtime tune “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.” It took Berlin longer to absorb the rag influences but when he finally did he was generally accepted as the first white songwriter to incorporate ragtime. Songs like “Play Some Ragtime” (1910), “Stop That Rag,” and “Yiddle on Your Fiddle” helped establish his reputation.Alexander’s Ragtime Band

Stop the show cold

“I never liked him. He was a good entertainer but I don’t particularly like him as a person. Everybody who followed him got on their knees and sang too. Usually some guy [would come in] singing, ‘Mammy, Mammy.’ I’d say, ‘Get on your knees, you can’t sing that standing up.’ He had a certain charisma that worked. I watched him in Boston when he was in the theatre. They were just crazy about him. He used to stop the show cold.”Harry Warren

Son of a bitch

“He was a son of a bitch but he was the greatest entertainer there ever was.”Georgie Jessel

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Recordings
Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Ethel Merman, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker et al
Swanee
Al Jolson, vocal, music by George Gershwin, lyric by Irving Caesar
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD