by George Jessel
A breeze from San Francisco Bay and the life of the greatest minstrel America has ever known is in the balance. A turn of a card –a telling of a gag — and within a few moments, a wife, a legion of friends, and a nation are brokenhearted. So it was–and so, alas, it is — the passing from this earthly scene of Al Jolson. And the voice that put majesty into the American popular song must from now on come from a disc instead of the heart, from whence it came.
And not only has the entertainment world lost its king, but we cannot cry, “the King is dead-long live the King!” for there is no one to hold his sceptre. Those of us who tarry behind are but pale imitations, mere princelings.
American Jewry suffers as well – and I must inform you of the great inspiration that Al was to the Jewish people in the last forty years. For in 1910 the Jewish people who emigrated from Europe to come here were a sad lot. Their humor came out of their own troubles. Men of 35 seemed to take on the attitude of their fathers and grandfathers – they walked with stooped shoulders. When they sang, they sang with lament in their hearts and their voices, always as if they were pleading for help from above.
And the actors, even the great ones, came on the stage also playing characters like their fathers. Vaudeville, the musical comedy stage and the legitimate theatre had Ben Welch and Joe Welch, monologists with beards and shabby clothes telling humorous stories that had a tear behind them. Likewise did this happen in legitimate theatre: David Warfield in the Auctioneer, The Music Master, and many others; in plays bewailing the misfortunes that had happened to the Jew.
Then there came on the scene a young man, vibrantly pulsing with life and courage, who marched on the stage, head high with the authority of a Roman emperor, with a gaiety that was militant, uninhibited and unafraid, and told the world that the Jew in America did not only have to sing in sorrow, but could shout happily about Dixie, about the Night Boat to Albany, about Coming to California, about a Girl in Avalon. And when he cried MAMMY it was in appreciation, not in lament.
Jolson is the happiest portrait that can ever be painted about an American of the Jewish faith. Jolson was synonymous with victory – at the race track, at the ball game, at anything that he participated in, he would say, “I had the winner, ha, ha, why didn’t you ask me?” This was not in bravado alone this was the quintessence of optimism. Whatever you’re in, whatever game you play, feel like you are the winner.
The history of the world does not say enough about how important the song and the singer have been. But history must record the name Jolson, who in the twilight of his life sang his heart out in a foreign land, to the wounded and to the valiant. I am proud to have basked in the sunlight of his greatness, to have been part of his time.
It will take a long time for the people in my business who have been wounded by his death to become reconciled that this dynamic bundle of energy with its God-given talent that called itself Al Jolson, is at peace- The very humanly emotional heart of the theatrical business does not heal so easily, and the tears that must fall from the eyes of the many who miss him already cannot be halted by the spoken word. No, the word will not take the place of his song.
from “The Real Story of Al Jolson” 1950, Spectrolux Corp.