Log In

Al Jolson Edit Profile

also known as Asa Yoelson, "Sonny Boy, " "Swanee"

actor , comedian , singer

Al Jolson was an American singer, film actor, and comedian.


Al Jolson was born as Asa Yoelson in the Jewish village of Srednik now known as Seredžius, near Kaunas in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. He was the fifth and youngest child of Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858 – December 23, 1945) and Nechama "Naomi" Cantor (1858 – February 6, 1895); his four siblings were Rose, Etta, another sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry). Jolson claimed not to know when he was born, and later chose to claim he was born on May 26, 1886. His one-time sister-in-law, Margaret Weatherwax (a sister of Ruby Keeler), claimed Jolson was the same age as their father, Ralph (who was born in 1881), and that Jolson was 46 when he married the 18-year-old Ruby in 1928.

In 1891, his father, who was qualified as a rabbi and cantor, moved to New York to secure a better future for his family. By 1894, Moses Yoelson could afford to pay the fare to bring Naomi and their four children to the U. S. By the time they arrived, he had found work as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood of Washington, D. C. , where the family was reunited.

Hard times hit the family when his mother, Naomi, died at 37 in early 1895. Following his mother's death, young Asa was in a state of withdrawal for seven months.


For a period of time, young Asa spent time at the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a progressive reformatory/home for orphans run by the Xaverian Brothers in Baltimore (the same school which would later be attended by Babe Ruth).


Jolson may have acquired a love of singing from his father, but he did not want to use his voice in the synagogue. Instead, he and his brother Harry sang on street corners to earn money. Jolson also attended the theater whenever possible and discovered a deep desire to become a performer.

In 1900 Jolson left Washington, D. C. , for New York. His first job on the stage was in Israel Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto, in which he played one of the mob. He also sang in a circus sideshow and finally teamed up with his brother to play vaudeville. They toured as Jolson/Palmer/ Jolson (Palmer, a paraplegic, was the third member of the team) with an act called The Hebrew and the Cadet. At first Al Jolson played the straight man to his brother's comic Jewish man, but eventually Harry Jolson and Palmer took over the comedy and Al Jolson sang. Jolson was best on the stage when he was alone, when he could be spontaneous and not under the pressure of delivering lines. In this manner he could really relate to the audience he loved so much to please.

In order to develop his singing abilities Jolson left his brother's group and spent several years in San Francisco playing in small clubs. One day he decided he must liven up his act, and he went on stage in blackface and sang "Rosey My Posey" in Southern style. The makeup and his unique musical interpretation brought a sensitivity to the act that elicited three encores from the audience. Al Jolson's style was born.

In 1909 he was given a job as one of the minstrels in Dockstader's Minstrel Show, a successful touring production. It was here that Arthur Klein, who became his agent, spotted Jolson and convinced the powerful Broadway producer, Lee Shubert, to put him in his new show, La Belle Paree (1911). On March 20, 1911, the blackface singer went on stage and sang "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad. " He was an instant hit. Jolson's singing and stage manner were different from anything the audience had seen. He took a song and applied to it a loose jazz/ragtime rhythm (this type of music had not yet been popularized). He wore blackface and rolled his eyes with a mischievous grin on his face. He also appealed to the emotions of the audience with his sentimental song deliveries interpolated with ad libbed dialogue.

Although Jolson did not receive star billing until 1914 in Dancing Around, the audiences clearly came to see him. The Shuberts knew this and signed Jolson for a seven year contract at the Winter Garden on Broadway. He played to overflowing houses in such shows as Vera Violetta (1911), The Honeymoon Express (1913), Robinson Crusoe, Jr. (1916), Sinbad (1918), and Bombo (1921). In most of these Jolson had no set script and no scheduled list of songs. He would come out on stage after the final act and talk to the audience and sing what pleased him.

Jolson's renditions of songs were sung by people throughout the country, and he became known for songs like "Sonny Boy, " "Swanee" (with this song Jolson introduced the composer George Gershwin), and most particularly "My Mammy. " In "Mammy" the performer would go down on one knee with his hands in front of him as if in prayer. With tears in his eyes he would speak to "mother, " telling her he'd "walk a million miles" just to see her. At the end he would get up and sing the last chorus with his hands spread wide and his face tilted upwards. After he introduced this song he was billed as "the greatest entertainer of all time. " To his adoring audiences this was the truth.

Jolson's intense need to be constantly at work led him to do a six week tour of his own one-man show, in which he established the format for solo performance; then a vaudeville tour; a Sunday theater series for performers; and finally—Hollywood. On October 6, 1927, Warner Brothers presented the world's first talking-picture feature, The Jazz Singer. The story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the rabbi's son who turned actor against the wishes of his father, became a sensation and remains a motion picture classic. It starred Al Jolson. People came to associate the movie with Jolson's own life, a myth that he encouraged and had even contributed to early in his career with songs like "Mammy. " This myth of the lonely man who had given up everything for the public was necessary for him—it was indeed reflected in his need for the audience's love.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of this film and its sequel, The Singing Fool (1928), Jolson did not succeed in film. He made several films afterwards, but his ultimate gift was his personal appeal to an audience. He was too big for the camera and could not convey his personality by way of screen. His career, in general, declined in the 1930s— sentimentality was out and the audiences sought after a different type of singing.

Jolson filled his time by performing on radio and entertaining the troops in World War II. (He also did this in the early days of the Korean War. ) He was a politically involved man, and he campaigned for several presidents by singing at rallies.

In 1946 Columbia Pictures presented The Al Jolson Story, in which Larry Parks impersonated Jolson and Jolson sang. The film was a fantasized version of his life and an immediate success. In 1949 they presented a sequel, Jolson Sings Again, another smash hit. These films not only brought the singer's career back to its heights but also immortalized this unique performer.

Al Jolson died of heart failure on October 24, 1950, the night before a planned radio taping with Bing Crosby.


  • At the peak of his career, he was dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer. " His performing style was brash and extroverted, and he popularized a large number of songs that benefited from his "shamelessly sentimental, melodramatic approach. " Numerous well-known singers were influenced by his music, including Bing Crosby, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart and others.

    In the 1930s, Jolson was America's most famous and highest-paid entertainer. 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. Although he is best remembered today as the star of the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), he later starred in 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. After a period of inactivity, his stardom returned with The Jolson Story (1946), for which Larry Parks played Jolson, with the singer dubbing for Parks. The formula was repeated in a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). In 1950, he again became the first star to entertain GIs on active service in the Korean War, performing 42 shows in 16 days.

    Defense Secretary George Marshall posthumously awarded him the Medal of Merit.

    Al Jolson has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:

    1). 6622 Hollywood Blvd. for his contribution to motion pictures.

    2). 1716 Vine St. for his mark on the recording industry.

    3). 6750 Hollywood Blvd. for his achievements in radio.

    In 2000, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.

    Jolson is also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame.

    Forty-four years after Jolson's death, the United States Postal Service honored him by issuing a postage stamp. The 29-cent stamp was unveiled by Erle Jolson Krasna, Jolson's fourth wife, at a ceremony in New York City's Lincoln Center on September 1, 1994. This stamp was one of a series honoring popular American singers, which included Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Ethel Merman, and Ethel Waters. And in 2006, Jolson had a street in New York named after him with the help of the Al Jolson Society.



Jolson was a Republican, supporting both Warren G. Harding in 1920 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924 for president of the United States. As "one of the biggest stars of his time, [he] worked his magic singing Harding, You're the Man for Us to enthralled audiences . .. [and] was subsequently asked to perform Keep Cool with Coolidge four years later. . .. Jolson, like the men who ran the studios, was the rare showbiz Republican. " Although a Republican, Jolson publicly campaigned for Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. By the next presidential election (1936), he was back to supporting Republican Alf Landon and would not support another Democrat for president during his life.


Quotations: After each song he delighted the audiences with his standard retort, "You ain't heard nothing yet. "

As told by actor comedian Alan King, it happened during a dinner by the New York Friars' Club at the Waldorf Astoria in 1946, honoring the career of Sophie Tucker. Jolson and his wife were in the audience along with a thousand others, and George Jessel was MC. He asked Al, privately, to perform at least one song. Jolson replied, "No, I just want to sit here. "

Then later, without warning, during the middle of the show, Jessel says, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the easiest introduction I ever had to make. The world's greatest entertainer, Al Jolson. " King recalls what happened next:

The place is going wild. Jolson gets up, takes a bow, sits down. . . people start banging with their feet, and he gets up, takes another bow, sits down again. It's chaos, and slowly, he seems to relent. He walks up onto the stage . . . kids around with Sophie and gets a few laughs, but the people are yelling, 'Sing! Sing! Sing!' . . . Then he says, 'I'd like to introduce you to my bride, ' and this lovely young thing gets up and takes a bow. The audience doesn't care about the bride, they don't even care about Sophie Tucker. 'Sing! Sing! Sing!' they're screaming again.

'My wife has never seen me entertain', Jolson says, and looks over toward Lester Lanin, the orchestra leader: 'Maestro, is it true what they say about Dixie?'


Quotes from others about the person

  • “Dylan once referred to him as "somebody whose life I can feel. "

    Broadway critic Gilbert Seldes compared him to the Greek god Pan, claiming that Jolson represented "the concentration of our national health and gaiety. "

    According to music historians Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold: "During his time he was the best known and most popular all-around entertainer America (and probably the world) has ever known, captivating audiences in the theatre and becoming an attraction on records, radio, and in films. He opened the ears of white audiences to the existence of musical forms alien to their previous understanding and experience … and helped prepare the way for others who would bring a more realistic and sympathetic touch to black musical traditions. "

    Black songwriter Noble Sissle, in the 1930s, said "He was always the champion of the Negro songwriter and performer, and was first to put Negroes in his shows". Of Jolson's "Mammy" songs, he adds, "with real tears streaming down his blackened face, he immortalized the Negro motherhood of America as no individual could. "”


Jolson was married four times (his third wife was the actress Ruby Keeler), and he had three children.

In 1920, Jolson began a relationship with Broadway actress Alma Osbourne (known professionally as Ethel Delmar); the two were married in August 1922; she divorced Jolson in 1928.

In the summer of 1928, Jolson met young tap dancer, and later actress, Ruby Keeler, in Los Angeles (Jolson would claim it was at Texas Guinan's night club) and was dazzled by her on sight. Three weeks later, Jolson saw a production of George M. Cohan's Rise of Rosie O'Reilly, and noticed she was in the show's cast. Now knowing she was going about her Broadway career, Jolson attended another one of her shows, Show Girl, and rose from the audience and engaged in her duet of "Liza". After this moment, the show's producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, asked Jolson to join the cast and continue to sing duets with Keeler. Jolson accepted Ziegfeld's offer and during their tour with Ziegfeld, the two started dating and were married on September 21, 1928. In 1935, Al and Ruby adopted a son, Jolson's first child, whom they named "Al Jolson Jr. " In 1939, however—despite a marriage that was considered to be more successful than his previous ones—Keeler left Jolson. After their 1940 divorce, she remarried, to John Homer Lowe, with whom she would have four children and remain married until his death in 1969.

In 1944, while giving a show at a military hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Jolson met a young X-ray technologist, Erle Galbraith. He became fascinated with her and more than a year later he was able to track her down and hired her as an actress while he served as a producer at Columbia Pictures. After Jolson, whose health was still scarred from his previous battle with malaria, was hospitalized in the winter of 1945, Erle visited him and the two quickly began a relationship. They were married on March 22, 1945. During their marriage, the Jolsons adopted two children, Asa Jr. (born 1948) and Alicia (born 1949), and remained married until his death in 1950.

After a year and a half of marriage, his new wife had never seen him perform in front of an audience, and the first occasion came unplanned.

Moses Rubin Yoelson

(1858 – December 23, 1945)

Nechama "Naomi" Cantor

(1858 – February 6, 1895)

Ethel Ruby Keeler

(August 25, 1910 – February 28, 1993)

Alma Osbourne

(1922–1928; divorced)

Henrietta Keller

(1907–1919; divorced)

Erle Galbraith

(1945–1950, his death)

Alicia (born 1949)

Asa Jr. (born 1948)

Al Jolson Jr.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson