SINGING PAST THE SILENCE
When The Jolson Story previewed in Santa Barbara, California, in 1946, Al Jolson overheard an elderly woman remark, “What a pity Jolson never lived to see this.”
The former superstar (born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania in 1886) had been off the radar for years. At the peak of his career, Jolson was dubbed “the world’s greatest entertainer,” recording 86 hit songs, selling out concerts and starring in the first feature-length talkie, The
Jazz Singer in 1927. Jolson delivered his sentimental tunes in a melodramatic, fullthroated manner to adoring audiences. He was a rock star before rock music existed.
Jolson sometimes performed in blackface, then common,
Al Jolson influenced generations of American male singers from Bing Crosby to Jerry Lee Lewis.
now derided. Less known, he also crusaded for civil rights, befriending many AfricanAmericans and paving the way for such legends as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. Jolson almost single-handedly introduced many African-American musical innovations, such as jazz, blues and ragtime, to a white audience.
The Jolson Story
starred Larry Parks, who lip-synced Jolson’s original recordings. The movie earned two Oscars (Best Score and Best Sound). Jolson went on to record five more hit singles after the movie’s success.
RANDAL C. HILL writes about music from his home in Bandon, OR.