Born Asa Joelson on May 26, 1886 in Seredzius, Lithuania, in the Russian Empire to a rabbi and wife, Naomi, Jolson moved with his family to the United States three years after his father became a cantor and rabbi at the Talmud Torah Synagogue of Washington, D.C. When his mother died in 1894, Jolson went into a state of shock – but in 1897 Al and his brother, Hirsch (Harry), were introduced to show business by Al Reeves. Afterward, the two brothers worked as an entertainment team to get enough money to go to the movies.
After a career in Burlesque and Vaudeville, Jolson began his radio career and was a popular guest on many programs. His own show, the long-running and popular, Al Jolson Show, was produced by NBC. The show was musical variety and even though it sported many titles, people thought of it as Jolson’s Show because his dominant personality took over at every appearance. Jolson appeared on Paul Whiteman’s Kraft-Phenix Program, which became Kraft Music Hall. After Jolson’s departure from the show, Bing Crosby became the starring name.
Jolson’s radio program went through a variety of names (including Lifebuoy Program and Shell Chateau), producers and performers. Producer, Carroll Carroll, wrote a memoir during the 1970s about how Jolson’s 1930’s series, Shell Chateau, was produced and commented that it was “typical depression fare” featuring “five acts and Jolson.”
During the heyday of the Kraft Music Hall (from 1947 to 1949), Jolson worked with piano-player, Oscar Levant and singers such as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and was voted Most Popular Male Vocalist by Variety, a show business newspaper in 1948.
Al Jolson was the most famous and highly paid entertainer in America during the 1930s. He’s most remembered for the first full length talking movie made –The Jazz Singer – in 1927, which can be heard for radio on Lux Radio Theater. He was the first major star to entertain the troops in World War II and The Korean War. Other Lux Radio Theater episodes starring Al Jolson are The Jolson Story, Jolson Sings Again, Burlesque and Swannee River.
Al Jolson also made many guest appearances on shows such as Texaco Star Theater, The Bob Hope Show, The Jimmy Durante Show, The Eddie Cantor Show, The Jack Benny Program and Let Yourself Go.
Al Jolson was married four times. His third marriage on September 21, 1928 was to dancer and actress Ruby Keeler with whom he starred with in Lux Radio Theater's Burlesque. In 1935, Al and Ruby adopted a son, whom they named "Al Jolson Jr." The marriage ended in 1939.
In 1944, Jolson met Erle Galbraith, an X-ray technician at a military hospital and married her in 1945. They adopted two children – Asa, Jr. and Alicia. The couple were married until his death on October 23, 1950 at the age of 64. Jolson’s funeral was one of the largest ever seen in show business history – over 20,000 people, including celebrities, Bob Hope, Larry Parks and George Jessel.
After Jolson’s death, Scripps-Howard newspapers featured a drawing with a pair of white gloves on a totally black background with the caption, “The Song Is Ended.”