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(1886 - 1950)

Al Jolson was born in Lithuania, although his exact birth date is uncertain. His family immigrated to the United States in 1895 and lived in impoverished circumstances in Washington, D.C. where his father was a cantor. Asa ran away as a teenager to join his brother, who had changed his name to Harry Jolson, and was soon working in vaudeville. In 1909 Al Jolson appeared for the first time in black face, singing “Mammy” to great applause.

His first Broadway success was in the show La Belle Paree (1911) where he began as a bit player and became the star. He referred to himself as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” and became the theater’s first “super star.” His impromptu style and rapport with audiences was unquestionable and even though his ego irritated others, his influence has been acknowledged throughout the decades by scores of entertainers. His long and successful career as a recording artist and in theater, films, and radio lasted until 1941 when he went into semi-retirement.

In 1927 Jolson starred in the first “talking picture,” The Jazz Singer, which launched his film career. Two films have been made of his life--The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949)—and Jolson: the Musical was produced in London in 1995 and subsequently toured the U.S. and Canada. Jolson also had his own radio show in the early ‘30s. He introduced the jazz standard “After You’ve Gone,” and many other songs, such as “Swanee,” “Sonny Boy,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” and “April Showers,” were popularized by him.

He came out of retirement to entertain troops during WWII and died in 1950, shortly after an exhausting trip to entertain soldiers in Korea. He was honored posthumously with the Congressional Order of Merit.

-- Sandra Burlingame

Courtesy of JazzStandards.com

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