The generation that adored Al Jolson is pretty much gone now, leaving him as more of a footnote in history — the performer who, in “The Jazz Singer,” brought in the talkies — than what he actually was in the scheme of things: the greatest entertainer of his time.
A white man in blackface singing “Mammy” puts our racially sensitive nerves on edge, but Lithuanian-born Asa Yoelsen came up through the hurly-burly of Tin Pan Alley and the immigrant experience to touch the deep nostalgia and old-country longing that gripped so many people in the new land, especially in crowded New York. In his delivery, “Mammy” was everybody’s mother.
He played big, theatrically speaking, and enjoyed such rapport with his audiences that he became a deeply beloved figure. When he died in 1950 at the age of 64, Broadway turned off its lights in salute. “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet,” he said in “The Jazz Singer,” as if he already knew he’d started a revolution.