Al JolsonAsa Yoelson (May 26, 1886 - October 23, 1950), better known as Al Jolson, was an immigrant son of a Russian Jew, and was born in Seredzius, Lithuania.
Jolson became a popular singer and a superstar of the Broadway stage, radio and film. He is best known, however, for his appearance in one of the first "talkies" The Jazz Singer, (the first film with sound to enjoy wide commercial success), in 1927 (See also blackface).
His Broadway career is unmatched for length and popularity, having spanned close to 30 years (1911-1940). After leaving the Broadway stage Jolson starred on radio, and his shows were always in the top ten of ratings. However, Jolson scored what many believe to be the greatest comeback in show business history when Columbia Pictures produced the film biography "The Jolson Story" in 1946, which starred Larry Parks as Jolson, lip-synching to Jolson's voice. A box office smash (it was the highest grossing film since "Gone With the Wind") led to a whole new generation became enthralled with Jolson's voice and charisma. Despite such singers as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como being in their primes, Jolson was voted the "Most Popular Male Vocalist" in 1948 by a Variety poll.
His legacy is considered by many to be severely neglected today because of his use of stage blackface which, while at the time was a theatrical convention used by many performers (both white and black), but is today seen as a racial slur. Jolson was billed as "The World's Greatest Entertainer", which is how many of the greatest stars (including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Jackie Wilson, etc) referred to him. A life-long devotion to entertaining American troops, servicemen and women, (he first sang for servicemen of the Spanish-American War as a boy in Washington DC!) and, against the advice of his doctors, he was entertaining troops in Korea in 1950 when his heart began to fail.
He died on October 23, 1950 in San Francisco and was interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. On the day he died, Broadway turned off its lights for 10 minutes to honor the passing of its greatest star. Yet today there can be found no statue, plaque or even sign anywhere in New York honoring Jolson, his talents, or his immeasurable contributions to the Broadway stage.