Blackface and Al Jolson

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.

The First Talkie?

         “The Jazz Singer” (1927) with Al Jolsen is usually credited as the first “talkie.” You can see a 2-minute clip of it here, starting at the 4 minute 54 second point.

            Actor John Barrymore made a film the year before with a synchronized musical score and sound effects using the Vitaphone system, so why isn’t that one considered the first? Probably because “The Jazz Singer” was the first film to use spoken dialogue, or maybe because it was the first full-length talking movie, or maybe because it was the first widely-seen, popular movie with words. Even then, most of “The Jazz Singer” was, like the Barrymore movie, vocal musical numbers. The first non-musical talkie came the next year in 1928: “Lights of New York.”

          Warner Brothers used the new Vitaphone system to make the movie. With this system, the soundtrack was not printed on the actual film as it would be later, but came separately on phonograph records that were played while the film was being projected.

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 12:18 pm  Comments (1)  
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