Asa Yoelson (1886 - 1950) MP

‹ Back to Yoelson surname

Is your surname Yoelson?

Research the Yoelson family

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!

Share

Nicknames: "Al Jolson"
Birthplace: Seredzius, Jurbarkas, Lithuania
Death: Died in San Francisco, CA, United States
Cause of death: Massive heart attack
Occupation: Legendary actor, dancer, singer, and general entertainer, Entertainer
Managed by: Charles Miller
Last Updated:

About Asa Yoelson

Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) was an American singer, comedian and actor. In his heyday, he was dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer".

He was born in the Kovno Governorate, Russian Empire (now Lithuania) and emigrated to America at the age of five with his Jewish parents. He was the fourth child of Moses Reuben Yoelson and his wife Naomi. His siblings were Rose, Etta, Hirsch (Harry), and a sister who died in infancy. Moses moved to the United Kingdom in 1891 and was a rabbi and cantor at the Talmud Torah Synagogue in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood of London. In 1894, Al and his siblings moved to London, shortly after which Naomi died, leaving Al in a period of deep depression.

Performing Style

Author Stephen Banfield has written that Jolson's style was "arguably the single most important factor in defining the modern musical." 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, Judy Garland, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bob Dylan, who once referred to him as "somebody whose life I can feel". Broadway critic Gilbert Seldes compared him to "the Great God Pan," claiming that Jolson represented "the concentration of our national health and gaiety."

Hollywood Career

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's best remembered today as the star in the first full-length talking movie, The Jazz Singer, in 1927, he later starred in a series of successful musical films throughout the 1930s. After a period of inactivity, his stardom returned with the 1946 Oscar-winning biographical film, The Jolson Story. Larry Parks played Jolson with the songs dubbed in with Jolson’s real voice. A sequel, Jolson Sings Again, was released in 1949, and was nominated for three Oscars.

Military Support

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jolson became the first star to entertain troops overseas during World War II, and again in 1950 became the first star to perform for G.I.s in Korea, doing 42 shows in 16 days. He died just weeks after returning to the U.S., partly due to the physical exertion of performing. Defense Secretary George Marshall afterward awarded the Medal of Merit to Jolson's family.

Social Activism

With his unique and dynamic style of singing black music, like jazz and blues, Jolson has been credited with single-handedly introducing African-American music to white audiences. As early as 1911 he became known for fighting against anti-black discrimination on Broadway, even though he enjoyed performing in blackface makeup. Jolson's well-known theatrics and his promotion of equality on Broadway helped pave the way for many black performers, playwrights, and songwriters, including Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters.

Personal Life

In 1906, while living in San Francisco, Jolson met dancer Henrietta Keller, and the two engaged in a year-long relationship before marrying in September 1907. In 1918, however, Henrietta — tired of what she reputedly considered his womanizing and refusal to come home after shows — filed for divorce. In 1920, Jolson began a relationship with Broadway actress Alma Osbourne (known professionally as Ethel Delmar); the two were married in August 1922.

In the summer of 1928, Jolson met tap dancer, and later successful actress, Ruby Keeler. The two started dating and were married on September 21 of that year. In 1935, Al and Ruby adopted a son, whom they named "Al Jolson Jr." Despite it being a marriage that was considered to be more successful than his previous ones, Keeler left Jolson in 1939, and later married John Lowe, with whom she would have four children and remain married until his death.

In 1944, while giving a show at a military hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Jolson met a young X-ray technician, Erle Galbraith. Jolson became fascinated by her and – over a year after meeting – 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 a 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. (b. 1948) and Alicia (b. 1949), and remained married until Al's death in 1950.

Masonic Affiliation

Jolson was a member of the famous St. Cecile Lodge, No. 568, in New York. Fellow members of his time included Harry Houdini and D. W. Griffith.