Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis covered his songs, Bob Dylan and Jerry Lee Lewis revered him, and every belter from Judy Garland to Mick Jagger to Taylor Hicks owes lessons in showmanship to Al Jolson. He might be remembered today as a shameless schmaltz peddler, his face corked in the demeaning racial stereotype of blackface, but in his day, this son of a Lithuanian rabbi was billed as “the World’s Greatest Entertainer.” He was surely the most seismic singer of his era: a star of Broadway, records and the earliest talking pictures. Onstage, prowling runways that projected him into the audience, he would build a tune to operatic grandeur, then tear it apart with a sobbing coda.
Like Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” Jolson’s signature song was a cover: “My Mammy” was introduced on the vaudeville stage by William Frawley, later I Love Lucy’s Fred Mertz. With lyrics by Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis and music by Walter Donaldson (a prolific hitmaker whose other “my” songs included “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “My Blue Heaven”), this maternal torch song proclaims, “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles.” Jolson nuked that naked sentiment in the climactic moments of The Jazz Singer, the 1927 musical melodrama that cued Hollywood’s gold rush to talkies. As a cantor’s son who has deserted the family job for showbiz, he sings to his mother in the front row — shimmying, patting his heart, impulsively clapping gloved hands, kneeling to speak-sing the second chorus and pleading, “Doncha know me? It’s your little baby!” In a galvanic performance, Jolson sold more than the song; he proved that the new medium could capture the glory of the world’s greatest entertainer and all those who would follow.
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