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May 26: Al Jolson

May 31, 2013

Al JolsonAl Jolson (Asa Yoelson), American’s most famous entertainer in the 1930s and the star of the first full-length talking movie, The Jazz Singer (1927), was born in Lithuania on this date in 1886 (he actually did not know his date of birth but selected May 26th). He came to the U.S. in 1894 and lost his mother shortly after. By 1902, he was a circus and burlesque singer; between 1911 and his retirement from the stage in 1926, he starred in a series of smash hits on Broadway, including George Gershwin’s Swanee. Jolson was a hammy, high-energy performer, and worked regularly in blackface — which many today view as racist and ridiculous — but Jolson insisted that it symbolized his identification with African-American suffering and music. The Amsterdam News in Harlem called The Jazz Singer, in which he sang several songs in blackface, as “one of the greatest pictures ever produced . . . Every colored performer is proud of him” — and black entertainers generally considered him an ally, a friend, and an anti-racist, “in an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies,” writes film critic Charles Musser. Judge for yourself with the top video below. To hear him singing in Yiddish (with English translation), look below that. Walter Winchell wrote that Jolson “was the first to entertain troops in World War Two, contracted malaria and lost a lung. Then in his upper 60s he was again the first to offer his singing gifts for bringing solace to the wounded and weary in Korea” — an effort that exhausted and sped him to his death in 1950.

“Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American musical innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences.... [and] paved the way for African-American performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters . . . to bridge the cultural gap between black and white America.” — St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture