Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson; May 26, 1886 – October 23, 1950) was a Jewish-American singer, film actor, and comedian. 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, David Bowie,Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart 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 he 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 posthmously 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 agreed, writing that Jolson's style was "arguably the single most important factor in defining the modern musical...."
Cantor 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 audiences. As early as 1911 he became known for fighting against black discrimination on Broadway.
Al Jolson was born as Asa Yoelson (Yiddish: אַסאַ יואלסאָן) in the Jewish village of Srednik (Yiddish: סרעדניק) now known as Seredžius, near Kaunas in 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 Margie Keeler-Weatherwax (a sister of Ruby Keeler) claimed Jolson was the same age as their father, who was born in 1882, and that Jolson was 46 when he married the 18-year-old Ruby in 1928. In 1891, his father, who was qualified as a rabbi and cantor, moved to New York to secure a better future for his family. By 1894, Moses Yoelson could afford to pay the fare to bring Naomi and his four children to America. By the time they arrived, 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.