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 Just as today’s clichés were once original ideas, Jolson’s style now seems out of date.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)

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

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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