Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Al Jolson

Dr. Bob Prescribes The Jazz Singer

The First “Talking Picture”? For as long as I’ve been aware of the movie The Jazz Singer, its title has always been preceded or followed by the phrase, “the first talking picture,” meaning the first major, full-length commercial film to contain spoken dialogue.  This is true but only just; in truth, the movie contains a total of two minutes’ worth of spoken dialogue, all of it improvised.  The dialogue for the remainder of the movie is presented through the standard, silent movie use of “caption cards” (or what were called “intertitles”).   We’d also note that all sorts of talking short films had been produced in the two years prior to the release of The Jazz Singer, films that used a variety of competing technologies for recording, reproducing, and synchronizingsound to visual imagery. (This issue of “synchronicity” was a huge, early challenge for the sound technologies employed during the “Early Sound Era.” We’ll talk more about synchronicity when we discuss the technology used to create The Jazz Singer, the Vitaphone process.) Nevertheless, it is that two minutes of spoken dialogue – along with its eleven musical numbers, six of them sung by its star, Al Jolson – that made The […]

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Music History Monday: Al Jolson and the Painful Legacy of Blackface

We mark the death on October 23, 1950 – 73 years ago today – of the Lithuanian-American singer and actor Al Jolson. Born “Asa Yoelson” on May 26, 1886, in the village of Srednik, in what was then the Russian Empire and what is today Lithuania, he died of a massive heart attack in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco at the age of 64. He was playing cards with friends when he collapsed; his last words were “Oh … oh, I’m going.” Singing ran deep in the Yoelson clan; his father Moses Yoelson was a cantor. The family immigrated to the United States in 1894 when young Asa was eight years old. Jolson grew up in southwest Washington, D.C., where he began his “career” singing on street corners. From there, it was onto burlesque shows and performing on the vaudeville circuit. In those days, entertainment, local retail, and professional sports were among the few American “industries” open to immigrant Jews. If this sounds painfully familiar to Black Americans, well, so it should. Equally painful is that by 1905, the 19-year-old Jolson began appearing in “blackface”: a holdover from the minstrel shows of the nineteenth century. […]

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