JOLSON, Al: Al Jolson, Vol. 2
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AL JOLSON "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby"
Volume 2: Original 1916-1918 Recordings
Self-billed The Worlds Greatest Entertainer, few showbiz figures can ever have merited that label more than Al Jolson. A vaudeville and Broadway song-and dance top liner in days long before TV and video, with the arrival of the talkies in 1927 it was his blacked-up face and genuflecting figure which first introduced sound-on-screen to a world audience in The Jazz Singer. And in a career which stretched back before the turn of the 20th century, this all-round phenomenon had already long since attained global stature through live performance and gramophone records, the first made, for Victor, in 1911.
Asa Yoelson, who was born in poverty in Srednik, Lithuania, on 26th May, 1886, arrived in Washington DC in 1893 with his orthodox cantor father, Moses, who hoped that he would follow him into the synagogue. Following their mothers premature death, however, Asa and his elder brother Hirsch (aka Harry) reputedly sang on street corners for pennies and from an early age the smell of greasepaint had a stronger appeal for the artistic, impressionable lad who was already singing in vaudeville well before his voice broke after which he turned temporarily to whistling. When their father re-married, the two brothers variously tried their luck in show business in New York. Al worked variously as a singing waiter and at McGirks saloon in the Bowery and, following his first New York appearance in 1899 (as an extra in Zangwills Children Of The Ghetto), first toured as Al Jolson with circus companies and in vaudeville. Towards the end of 1902 he formed a double-act, The Hebrew & the Cadet with Harry (who was the first of the duo to perform in blackface) but resumed his solo career in 1905, making his greatest impact in San Francisco. By 1908, already a fully-fledged professional all-rounder, he had joined the internationally renowned Lew Dockstader Minstrels.
In March 1911, in the first of ten shows up to 1931, Al was booked by the Shuberts to appear, blackface, in Kerns La Belle Paree and, later that same year he returned to the Golden Mile to appear in Eyslers Vera Violetta (in a cast which boasted the youthful Mae West) and was back again in 1912 for the Harrison RhodesHarold Atteridge composite revue The Whirl Of Society, a show which later toured the States. In 1913 Jean Schwartzs ragtime revue Honeymoon Express gave him free rein to interpolate extraneous song material, a penchant which he was able to continue to even greater effect the following year in Sigmund Romberg and Harry Carrolls Dancing Around.
In June 1915 Jolson and the company of Dancing Around won great acclaim for their appearance at the prestigious Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco and by February 1916 he had returned to Broadway, to star in Robinson Crusoe, Jr., a collaboration by Romberg and James F. Hanley with book and lyrics by Atteridge and Edgar Smith and a cast which included Kitty Doner, Lawrence DOrsay and Helen Shipman. Into this show (his best storyline to date, it survived for 139 performances) the blackface Jolson interpolated, among other material, Down Where The River Shannon Flows, Now Hes Got A Beautiful Girl and Tillie Titwillow and, perhaps even more memorably, George W. Meyers Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday On Saturday Night? and Pete Wendlings Yaaka Hoola Hickey Doola.
During 1916 Jolson further extended his discography to include the latest songs by Irving Berlin and such British music hall "imports" as A Broken Doll and Evry Little While, both from the pen of the Wolverhampton-born pianist-songwriter James W. Tate (1875-1922). He was also invited by the Vitagraph Company to make a silent film test. However, dissatisfied with the result ("Im no good if I cant sing!", he complained) he quickly ordered its withdrawal and, sensing his future lay at least for the present in live theatre, had no further contact with the film industry until April Showers, a 1926 Vitaphone one-reeler in which his three pre-recorded songs were over-dubbed from special discs. In 1917 Jolson offered to fight for his adopted country only to be told that he might serve it best as a morale-booster. Indeed, by the time his Broadway success Sinbad opened at the New York Winter Garden in February 1918 (a Romberg score, with an Atteridge story and libretto and co-starring Doner, DOrsay, Edgar Atchinson-Ely and Forrest Huff) the USA had been at war for almost a year. In its initial run this show lasted for 164 performances. It toured for two years and opened and closed twice before being revamped by Jolson in 1921. Its original edition featured some timeless numbers : two contributions by the young George Gershwin (including "Swanee"), ("Mammy", by Walter Donaldson), five Jolson collaborations with Bud De Sylva (including N Everything) and two Jean Schwartz compositions -most notably Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody.
Peter Dempsey, 2002
Transfers and Production: David Lennick
Digital Noise Reduction: Graham Newton
Original recordings from the collections of David Lennick, John Rutherford, and the Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive, Syracuse University.