The Great Song Salesman

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at


It’s hard to believe that Al Jolson, a 19th century blackface minstrel born to a rabbi in the empire of the Russian czar, bred in the atmosphere of vaudeville, a rhetorical belter of Tin Pan Alley songs, notorious for his undying, knee-bending, love of Dixie and Mammy, could be the mentor of such stars as Rod Stewart, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. But he was—and before them were Judy Garland and Eddie Cantor. All had to admit defeat at the outstretched hands of pop’s Great Dictator. He was, no doubt, “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”—even if he did say so himself. He was also the first showbiz star.

       He was modern, though, in his willingness to face and conquer new technology, fearlessly shouting his song wares into the ugly tin horns of the acoustic recording studio, later gyrating and crying into a hulking camera as “The Jazz singer”. Because of his irrepressible nature and winning way with a song and some ad- lib excited dialog he made movie history by killing the silent film and dragging in the talkies. With his restless snake hips and drill sergeant baritone he broke on through the cold machinery of the electric age to take us to higher places on his magic carpet—a never-never land far away from mundanity where Al will spread the good news: song, his song, is the answer to the meaning of life.

       He was born Asa Yoelson in Russia in 1886.His father, a strictly orthodox rabbi had moved the family to Washington, D.C. by the time Asa became smitten by show business. At eight he had seen his mother in her death agony. He was told she had gone to a better land. From now on he remained emotionally a child, lost and crying for that other place. Sometimes the cries grew so intense we knew he had discovered it. At other times it was merely the Dixieland of song.

       In his teens, tiring of the strictures of the synagogue, he went to New York where he worked in show sketches. He blacked up to hide his nerves. The age-old trick of the black mask enabled him to emerge radiant and special. He now started billing himself as Al Jolson.

       In 1908 he was hired by a top minstrel show as a singer of harmless plantation songs. His sassy style was emerging: rolling his eyes, wriggling his frame, licking his lips, sticking his tongue in his cheek and declaiming,” Folks! You ain’t seen nothing yet!” “Variety” noted, “Jolson is a natural minstrel and his stage magnetism can win out always.” He was on his way to Broadway and stardom. In 1911, while Irving Berlin’s songs were setting the ragtime craze rolling, Jolson started an amazing run of show hits---revues such as “Vera Violetta” and “Dancing Around’. They came armed with books but Al didn’t go by the book. He threw it away and improvised, sat on the stage apron and chatted with his audience and the conductor. He had a runway built so he could scamper out, clapping his hands, cajoling his folks into another world where anything could happen.

       The shows came armed with scores, too, but Al beefed up these thin revues with Tin Pan Alley product he’d picked up. If Al sang your song you’d be heard—and how! This was largely how America was exposed to the delights of “You Made Me Love You”,  “Rockabye your Baby With a Dixie Melody”,  “Swanee” (George Gershwin’s first hit). He gobbled up songs. Songwriters gathered in his dressing room, lined up at his office, sang to him in his bath.

       In February 1917 Jolson announced in the press that his billing would now be as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”. Nobody challenged the claim but, equally, nobody was yet questioning exactly where this bundle of sound and fury was leading the world. The piper piped, the people followed. How was this trick pulled off?

       By some hypnotic authority, or demagoguery. What matter that his face was covered in burnt cork, that he was a Russian-born Jew singer of mammy in Alabammy, that he could suddenly switch from “When I leave The World Behind’’ to “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?”—from the semi-sacred to the near profane?

       For out there alone onstage in the transforming limelight and acting as if his life were in jeopardy, Jolson forced his audience to send waves of love to wash over him. in return he’d throw love and blow kisses and supplicate on one knee. A love pure and irresponsible—the kind of love demanded and returned by child or pet.

But also out there onstage was a high-pressure song salesman with just the right all-purpose vocal equipment; a leathery baritone that could thrill like a lark, wail like a wounded animal, declaim like a street-corner orator, hit the high notes and then zoom down again in a delightful nasal slur-slide. He had a way of breaking down the stiff notes of the scale with a technique that would soon be called jazz.

       On his pre-electric records he’s hampered by rigid bands but as the 1920s advance he’s backed by name bands who race along with him, notably Isham Jones’ boys. From worship of the sunny south and its mammies he moves westward with “California Here I Come’” and ‘Golden Gate” (in which he orders the band to “Get hot!”)

       And on August 16 1927 he finds himself in a cabaret set of a picture called ”The Jazz Singer” where he hurls down his well-known gauntlet of promise of amazing electrical things to come: “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’; yet!”. But he was being paid to sing not to talk. This was a silent film with inserted songs. He was unwittingly pushing  his way into movie history. Out came ad-libbed monologue, in came talking pictures.

       The picture, with Jolson in his familiar black face, made Warner Bros. millions. The star wisely took his fee in W.B. stock. “The Singing Fool”, the follow-up, made even more money—so  much that it was the highest-grossing movie till “Gone With The Wind’. In this Jolson appeared in whiteface and showed he could sell a sob ballad as well as a Dixie song. “Sonny Boy” was an enormous hit because, for all its sentimentality, Al sang it seriously, meaning every note every word. You can’t fool the public—they bought millions of  copies of the sheet music.

 There followed a  string of more films  but by the mid-1930s people had tired of Jolson as the screen presence of an over-ripe vaudevillian. In-your-face minstrelsy was out, sleek sophistication was in. Cocktails for two, the suave swish of sheer silk. e einD’.


              Al’s career took a dive, while audiences thrilled to the dancing legs of his girl-wife, Ruby Keeler.A few years later Al and his pianist could be found cruising Beverly Hills looking for a party. “How’d you like to have Al Jolson sing for your guests?” was the pianist’s pitch when—and if—the door was opened.

       However, only a bullet could stop Al. And in 1946, with the release of “The Jolson Story, he made the greatest comeback in showbiz history, This fragrant and richly colored tissue of romanticism became the hit movie of 1946 and resulted in the  60-year- old mammy  man becoming a jukebox favorite and the idol of millions of bobbysoxers. His recording career was revived by the bio movie: he made new versions of the old favorites in a deeper and more melodious voice, full of character. He even did a version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” complete with recitation --ten years before Elvis Presley copied him. Tirelessly he  entertained the troops even as far as the Korean War. “Let me sing And I’m happy”, as the Irving Berlin song explained in one  of his movies. He should have been in harmony heaven.

       But offstage life was tough. Wives were ordered to applaud upon his arrival home. Alone time was anathema, so friends were invited to stay the night—carefully tucked up in bed and lullabied to. He confessed to a continuing fear that after his death he’d be forgotten. He believed that only in person could his magical arts be understood. Humorist Robert Benchley summed up the Jolson experience in 1925:

       “ When he enters it is as if an electric  current had been run along the wires under the seats where hats are stuck. The house comes to tumultuous attention. He speaks, rolls his eyes, compresses his lips, and it is all over. You are a life member of the Al Jolson Association. He trembles his under-lip , and your heart breaks with a loud snap. He sings, and you totter out to send a night letter to your mother”.

       I never saw him live onstage but I bought his records and  I feel I know him. I first heard him on a  slot machine on Brighton Pier on a wet and windy day in 1950. As a minstrel puppet he dropped to one knee and  sang  “Swanee’ to a scratchy 78 record. And all for sixpence.

       I was transported from a gray and battered world to a land of sunshine, hope, and the chance of winning—the old siren call to immigrants, the promise of America, the marshaling of forces by the master minstrel himself!

       Al Jolson died at the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco, in 1950. But his voice and his electric personality will echo through the ages.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at