singer, film actor, comedian
May 26, 1886 - October 23, 1950
Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) was an American singer, film actor, and comedian. At the peak of his career, he was dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer".
Al Jolson – "The World's Greatest Entertainer".
Al Jolson was born as Asa Yoelson, reportedly in the Jewish stettl of Srednik, near Kaunas in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. He was the fifth and youngest child of his family.
Like with many Jewish families of the time, there were no official records of his birthdate (parents tried to shield boys from the military draft), so later he simply decided to celebrate his birthday on May 26.
In 1891, his father, a rabbi, moved to New York - first by himself, later bringing his wife and children. Soon after moving to America, Asa's mother died, and the boy fell into in a state of withdrawal for seven months. He was sent to an orphanage in Baltimore, where he first heard contemporary pop music and began earning money in the streets, singing popular tunes for small change and buying tickets to shows at the National Theater.
Soon he found his way onto the scene through clubs and small concert halls, and in several years producers began inviting him to more respectable venues, including on Broadway. His performing style was brash and extroverted – Broadway critic Gilbert Seldes once described him as "the concentration of our national health and gaiety."
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. And in the 1930s he was America's highest-paid entertainer! A succesful career in movies followed: he was the star of the first 'talking picture', The Jazz Singer (1927), as well as 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. Jolson was officially enlisted in the United Service Organizations (USO), and even received a "Specialist" rank, which permitted him to wear a uniform.
After a period of inactivity, his stardom returned with The Jolson Story (1946) and the sequel Jolson Sings Again (1949).
In 1950 he again became the first star to entertain GIs in the Korean War, performing 42 shows in 16 days.
He enjoyed performing in the "blackface" makeup, which allowed white performers of the late XIX century to sing African-American music, without the need to break the ban on black performers on stage. With his unique and dynamic style of singing jazz and blues, he was later credited with single-handedly introducing African-American music to white audiences.
Jolson was married three times and had two children. His life was cut short by the effects of the Korean war... Dust and soot had settled in his lungs, and on October 23, 1950, while playing cards at a hotel in San Francisco, he suffered a heart attack and died.
Ruhlmann, William. Al Jolson at AllMusic.
Freedland, Michael. Al Jolson (1972)