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.

Black Vaudeville Performers

In turn-of-the-century America when segregation was at its peak, vaudeville defied the convention—it featured all kinds of performers on the same stage. “Talent has no color,” explained Joe Laurie, a vaudeville veteran from the old days. It was actually unusual not to find a mixture of Asians, African-Americans, Jews, and recent immigrants in the typical nine-act lineup, including men, women, and children.

Not that vaudeville life was all kum-ba-yah. Segregation was more evident in the audience, where blacks were routinely banned or relegated to the balcony. In response, blacks-only theaters grew up, particularly in the South, and in 1909, a Negro Circuit of theaters was formed. This was the T.O.B.A. circuit, or Theater Owners Booking Association, It played to all-black audiences throughout the South and also in Northern states until the 1930s when vaudeville itself faded away.

Any black performer from the old days that you can name—Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Josephine Baker, and Hattie McDaniel, for example—started in vaudeville, playing both mainstream and Negro circuits.

Here’s a short 1937 film of two young vaudeville performers who sing and dance—dare I say, better than Michael Jackson? Ladies and gentlemen, presenting for your enjoyment, direct from Philadelphia, the amazing, the sensational, the one-and-only Nicholas Brothers!!!