This vintage collection of songs originally recorded by Al Jolson on 78 rpm discs between 1911 and 1919 was digitized and compiled by The Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University Libraries. These albums are not available for sale or reproduction.
It is a miracle of life that even from difficult and humble beginnings magnificent things can grow. Who would think that a Jewish child born to a cantor and his wife in anti-Semitic Tsarist Russia could become an entertainment icon whose fame would continue to flourish more than 50 years after his death?
At the age of 4 young Asa Yoelson’s father became a rabbi and left the old country to find a better life. Four years later the Rabbi became head of a Washington D.C. synagogue and the family joined him. Unfortunately Asa’s mother died shortly after arriving in the USA in 1895.
Young Asa soon became known as Al and his older brother Hirsh became Harry. The two boys were obsessed with show business and within four years they were singing in a circus. By 1901 they were getting bookings in burlesque and vaudeville.
In 1904 Al, now known as Al Jolson, was called upon to fill-in for a performer in a blackface vaudeville comedy show. Blackface, an important performance tradition in the American theater beginning around 1830 can now be seen as racist and offensive. But to young Al Jolson it was a blessing. Hidden behind the make-up, he found that he could give a freer, more energetic performance. When this chance opportunity was well-received by the audience and critics, he soon decided to continue using blackface. The spontaneity and freedom he felt when in blackface elevated his performance and his fame.
His 1911 rendition of George M. Cohan’s Haunting Melody in the show “Vera Violetta” made him a Broadway star. Other Broadway musicals followed. In 1913 he stunned the audience when he fell to one knee during the final chorus of “You Made Me Love You.” This pleading pose became a signature move that was associated with Jolson until the end of his career. Other early hits included Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody (1918) and George Gershwins’s Swanee (1918).
These recordings were produced prior to 1923 and are in the public domain.