Al Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania and not knowing the exact date of his birth chose to celebrate it on May 26, 1886. His father left the family behind and moved to the United States in 1891 to try to live the American dream. He sent for his wife and children in 1894. It wasn’t long after arriving in the U.S. that Al’s mother died and young Al became sullen and withdrawn for the next seven months.
He and his brother soon became obsessed with learning ragtime songs and began performing in saloons and on the streets of Washington. Asa’s father tried to keep the boys in line but they ended up running away to perform. Asa changed his name to Al and his brother changed his to Harry. They eventually changed their name to Jolson.
In 1904, while playing at Keeney’s Theater in Brooklyn, Al Jolson began performing in blackface and hiding behind the make-up, Al was able to put his heart and soul into the performance and the act won him rave reviews.
He toured for the next 20 years, starring in one successful show after another. He was an excellent performer and his audiences loved him. He tried his hand at silent films but he really didn’t think much of them. He did a short film for Warner Brothers which featured his blackface singing. When Warner Brothers got the screen rights to the Broadway play, The Jazz Singer, they immediately wanted Jolson to play the role of Jack Robin.
This was one of the first films where there is talking and singing and when audiences saw it, they were no longer satisfied with silent movies. Al Jolson continued starring on the big screen and cranked out a string of musical hits. He was billed as, “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”
Unfortunately, Warner Brothers had him playing the same role over and over and before long, audiences grew tired of him. By the 1930’s, Jolson’s career was fading and his health was fading as well. In 1946, Columbia Pictures released The Jolson Story, which was supposed to be Jolson’s life story. The movie was a huge hit and Al Jolson was on top again.
During World War II, Jolson said his best times were spent performing for the troops. In 1947, Jolson hosted the Kraft Music Hall on the radio, which he had helped to get on the air in 1933. He loved performing on the radio and stayed with the radio show until 1949. When the war broke out in Korea, Al went to perform for the troops once again, even paying all his own expenses.
When he came back to the states, Al Jolson was tired and looked it. He was due to perform on Bing Cosby’s radio show and while at his hotel room, he was playing cards with his friends. He had a bad case of indigestion and called a doctor. Soon after the doctors arrived, Al Jolson died of a heart attack. Jolson will forever be remembered doing his blackface rendition of Mammy and Swanee.