(May 26, 1885(86)?? - Oct 23, 1950)
Born to Jewish parents in Lithuania, he was billed at "The Greatest Entertainer In The World. In Movies, Records, on Broadway or vaudeville, no one brought more energy and respect to each forum.
I must say I have seen Jolson perform in film and heard him on old radio and TV shows, and I honestly cannot see the appeal of this guy. He is to me, average at best. I hear the screams of girls when he performs on old radio shows and I cannot fathom why. But evidently I am wrong because for millions Jolson was not only billed as "The Greatest Entertainer on Earth," he actually was.
The family name was Hesselson and like many of the Jewish entertainers it was changed to avoid being labeled as "ethnic."
Jolson started singing in 1898 to the troop in the Spanish American War. He was immediately popular. He performed in blackface, and sang in casual style, operatic style. He whistled, joke and directly addressed the audience. He literally bounced around the stage with energy.
In 1911 he started in Broadway, and his career lasted on Broadway till 1940 an unheard of length and he was just as popular at the beginning and end of his career as he was thought the entire Broadway run
He started out in the musical La Belle Paree (1911) on Broadway, and was the breakout star. Soon he was international famous and Hollywood, just beginning to experiment with talking films or "talkies," began to take notice.
In 1927 he starred in the first commercial talkie The Jazz Singer. In this film he made famous the quote "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet." Although there were only a few minutes of actual talking, it proved to Hollywood both a talking motion picture and Al Jolson could be moneymakers (FYI: the rest of the film was made up of sound effects and music. He continued to make both talkies and silent films with much success.
Jolson was also a star on records. He is most identified with the song Sitting On Top Of The World. Jolson's record of Sonny Boy became the first record to sell more than two million records, eventually selling over three million records. It's estimate he sold well over ten million records. Jolson topped the record charts, sheet music charts, and vaudeville charts all together for over 110 weeks.
Jolson was still famous in the mid 40s but his career was losing ground to singers like Frank Sinatra and actors like Cary Grant. In 1946 Hollywood put out The Jolson Story. The film starred Larry Parks but Al Jolson provided new recordings of his old songs, to which Parks lip-synched. The movie was a smash hit, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year. Parks received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor.
The movie led to the younger generation falling in love with Jolson and he was even more popular than before. In 1948 Jolson beat out Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Perry Como, for Variety's "Most Popular Male Vocalist." In 1949 a sequel called Jolson Rides Again was made. It too was a hit.
Jolson died in 1950 of a massive heart attack.
Because Jolson, like all other performers of the time (even African Americans) performed in blackface, his massive popularity is often overlooked. Jolson was in no form a racist. Also because his heyday consisted of unrecorded vaudeville and silent films, it is hard to grasp his massive popularity. Although he had success on radio, Jolson had to move. He constantly moved and sang to the audience. In those day performers on the radio had to stand still, directly in front of the microphone to be heard. The technology was not yet sophisticated enough to allow movement. This hampered Jolson on the radio.
Al Jolson and Al Jolson on one knee, in Blackface