Musical History: Al Jolson

Al JolsonAl Jolson (May 26, 1886–October 23, 1950) was a highly acclaimed American singer, comedian and actor of Jewish heritage whose career lasted from 1911 until his death in 1950. He was one of the most popular entertainers of the 20th century whose influence extended to other popular performers, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., Eddie Fisher, Jerry Lewis, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Michael Jackson, David Lee Roth and Rod Stewart.

Al Jolson was the first popular singer to make a spectacular “event” out of singing a song. Prior to Jolson, popular singers such as John McCormack and Henry Burr would stand still with only very minimal gesturing as they sang. Jolson, in comparison, had tremendous energy displayed in his performances by way of dynamic gestures and other physical movement. Jolson was the first entertainer to use a runway extending out from the center of the stage, so he could be closer to the audience. It was very common for Jolson to sit on the end of the runway and have personal one-on-one conversations with audience members, which had also never been done prior to Jolson.

Jolson was known to stop major Broadway productions in which he was involved, turn to the audience and ask them if they would rather hear him sing instead of watching the rest of the play. The answer from the audience was always a resounding “yes,” and Jolson would spend at least the next hour singing an impromptu concert to an ecstatic audience. George Burns, the popular American comedian and friend of Al Jolson probably described Jolson best when he said, “…Jolson was all Show Business!”

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Al Jolson

Al Jolson – My Mammy 1927

Al Jolson – Toot Toot Tootsie

Al Jolson – Sonny Boy