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Al Jolson

Born: Asa Yoelson
26th May 1886, in Seredžius, Lithuania, Russian Empire.

Died: “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”
23rd October 1950, in San Francisco, California, USA.

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    It is quite unlikely that you would find a contemporary singer-entertainer who was not inspired or influenced by the melancholy music of Al Jolson.  Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Neil Diamond, Jerry Lewis, David Roth, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan and Jackie Wilson are just a few from this era that have given testament to the effect Jolson had on their personal careers.
     Not only did Jolson break ground as the first Jewish performer to reach the status of stardom in America, but he also cut a pathway for other minorities to follow. He came to fame in an era of American history when the Ku Klux Klan was at its strongest,

and defiantly blazed across America’s stages and movie screens in blackface makeup and lamenting the plight of an entire race and generation of people.  
    To say that Al Jolson “changed the face” of the song and dance man, would be akin to saying that Ernest Hemingway had scribbled an interesting tale or two.  His exaggerated and melodramatic performances in combination with his black-faced minstrel caricatures, drew criticism for creating stereotypical images of Jews and Blacks that would further delineate society.

     However, Jolson’s fans and his stolid fight for equality on Broadway’s Great White Way, responded to his mournfully moving musical adaptations which reverberated with “the cry of anguish of a people who had suffered.”
(Source: Encyclopedia of American Jewish History)

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   While Jolson might be best remembered as the star in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first full-length movie which featured dialogue, music and sound effects, his list of historical firsts reaches far beyond the silver screen. Regarded as the "first openly Jewish man to become an entertainment star in America"; his rendition of “Swanee” in 1919 led to composer George Gershwin's first hit recording; Jolson became the youngest man in American history to have a theatre named after him, and the first entertainer to have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (contribution to motion pictures, the recording industry and achievements in radio.) 

Jolson selflessly became the first star to entertain troops overseas during World War II, and again in 1950 became the first star to perform for GIs in Korea, doing 42 shows in 16 days, a schedule which would hasten his death. Posthumously he was awarded the Medal of Merit, "to whom this country owes a debt which cannot be repaid".

          Al Jolson & Bill Campbell
   Bill Campbell, a wee boy of just ten years, first came to know Al Jolson in the film classic, “The Jolson Story.” The unlikely pairing would literally alter Bill’s life. The genius of Jolson served as mentor and muse in guiding Bill’s theatrical and musical career, and continues to provide the inspiration and motivation each time he steps on stage.

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  Al & Bill, commonly called ‘The Dapper Duo’, in what is believed to be their earliest photo together. (Below)

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Al favoured fedora hats (above) and teased Bill endlessly about wearing his “Boater” on dry land. At a loss for a stage prop at the Palladium one night, Bill suggested Al use his straw hat and a career-defining icon was born.

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  (left) It was a tune destined to be one of their biggest hits, but show producers and directors had trouble understanding Bill’s accent. For the sake of the show and Al’s budding career, Bill resigned from the contract and insisted the song “My Billy” be re-written for Al to sing to his Mammy. (below)

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  (left) Refusing to appear without his right-hand man, Al devised a clever disguise for Bill so the producers and directors wouldn’t recognize him. The unique song style of the “black-faced minstrel” became an overnight success and no one could tell it was a Scottish accent!

   It was a never-ending challenge to create roles and disguises (right)  to keep the acting pair together. Bill often took “the lesser role”, thrusting Al into the limelight, simply because Al did not have to figure to pull off the costume demands! 

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    Originally cast as Al’s “right hand man”, Acorn, (left of Al) Bill took the role of the New York Central Park trash collector when he discovered he could no longer hit the high notes without wearing fishnet stockings.
   “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” (American title) was their favourite production and led Bill to a solo career, starring in the role of Bumper.

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    On a rare day out at the beach, (left) with a little help from a bicycle pump, Bill reaps his revenge for the spangles and sequins!

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