Music historians have likened Al Jolson’s effect on jazz, the blues, and ragtime to Elvis’s on rock ‘n’ roll, since both men introduced African-American music to white and mainstream audiences. But ask the man in the stret what he knows of Al Jolson and most will say (if they know the name at all): “the first talkie.” But before his 1927 talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” Jolson had a successful vaudeville career.
Like many vaudevillians, he often performed in blackface makeup but this Jewish singer identified strongly with blacks and fought discrimination—especially on the stage where he had influence—from his earliest years. For instance, he used to take black entertainers to restaurants that refused to serve “colored” and insisted they be seated at his table. His belief in equality helped pave the way for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Eubie Blake.
In vaudeville, Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) started as a singer specializing in Sephen Foster songs. As his popularity grew, he moved to the theater stage with musical comedies and George Gershwin numbers. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, he was Broadway’s biggest star.