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Al Jolson and the First Talking Movie

Updated on December 1, 2014

A Voice in A Million

Few people today probably have memory of Al Jolsen but for me he was one in a million. At a time when singers were trying to cheer up the world after the Second World War the radio would blare out his songs and they thrilled you to the core. He had style and a voice that made you want to sing and be happy.

If you are one of those poor unfortunates who don't know whom I am talking about let me introduce you to a performer that will leave you wanting to know more about him. You will want to listen to his music and soak in his sounds until they make your soul sing. There was a very good reason why he was chosen to be the first voice heard on the newly invented talking movies. To avoid confusion please note that his name is spelled either with the suffix -sen or -son, although son is probably more common.

All images of Jolson and the banner advertising the Jazz Singer are outside of copyright as they are pre 1930 or licensed under Wikimedia Commons. Descriptions and storyline of his life is from my recollections and in keeping with information from the Jolson Story. The only piece of text cited from Wikipedia is of the original author of the play on which the Jazz Singer was based concerning his impression of Jolson and it is properly cited and credit given. Again the wording for that quote is prior to 1926 and outside of copyright claims. {{PD-1996}}

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Al Jolsen - Black Face singing Mammy
Al Jolsen - Black Face singing Mammy

The Jolsen Story

When this 16 years old boy suddenly stood up and sang in the burlesque house and forgot to attend his singing in the Jewish Synagogue it started something, It launched a career that was astounding. Watching this film recently brought tears to my eyes as the years rolled away and my heart raced to the sound of the wonderful voice of a man for whom there was such admiration and an outpouring of respect and desire for more of what he had to give to the world.

Life is strange the way we are selected to be heard and promoted to fame. By the time he became a man Jolsen was already famous and had long running shows on Broadway. Below is a video of a scene from the Jolsen Story which shows how he took to the stage uninvited when the man who was to have done the act was too drunk to go on. Once out there the audience was captivated. The world heard of his mighty talent and sought to hear it over and over as he sang melodies and songs that ripped your heart out or left you with a glow inside that would take ages to subside,

He was credited with being the world's greatest entertainer and few in those days could get enough of him. With his father a Cantor in the Synagogue and of very devout Jewish parents this only child wanted to do something that was completely opposite to everything they believed in. His mother stood by him and persuaded the father to allow him to continue on the path he chose after his threat that he would continue to run away if they stopped him. From them on his story is inspiring, one of beauty and passion and an all-time great.

He started his own career by putting on a black face and substituting for another performer who was too drunk to go on stage. The management tried to shut him down but he persisted and won the audience. This brave act launched his future career and he never looked back

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Larry Parks played Jolsen in the Jolsen Story - But it's Jolsen's voice.

The Jazz Singer
The Jazz Singer

An Example to Copy

My brother was a great singer in his younger years and he could take off Al Jolsen to a tee. It is not that Jolsen was the only one in the world with a great voice but it was his entertainment style. He started out naïve about all the tricks of show-business and acted natural in the way he delivered his songs and especially how he engaged with his audience.

The music world was growing up at that time and sound movies made a big difference to bands and musicians of all types who were trying their hand at success. Most of them, including greats like Elvis Presley, admitted to taking cues from him about the ways of getting to the top. In other words - be yourself. Express your passion and exactly what turn you on and guaranteed you will turn them on.

Wikipedia quotes Samson Raphaelson, (author of the play on which the Jazz Singer is based): "I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson-his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song." He explained that he had seen emotional intensity like Jolson's only among synagogue cantors."'

The first talking movie was rushed off in just 8 weeks and the premiere was set for October 6, 1927, at Warner Bros.' flagship theater in New York City (cited Wikipedia). It was, of course, to become a major hit for Warner Bros and the beginning of a changed movie industry. The film is old now and parts of it are fading but it is still capable of turning its audience into something special. Jolsen's voice and his amazing magnetism for his audience is still something to copy.

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The Birth of Talkies

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Still images from Dreamstime - click here

© 2012 norma-holt

Before You Leave

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      3 years ago

      I wish you two luck during the monvig process and I hope everything goes as smoothly as possible. Good to hear your testimony and I also want to say Happy Mother's Day too!

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Well given so many young people who have ehtier attempted or were successful suicide isn't a new problem. I just want teens of today to realize teens of yesterday, or yester- decade+ endured the same thing. Fortunately my friend lived to regret her attempt find true love and have a beautiful daughter, but so many others as you know don't. Just doing my little part to get the word out. Thanks Katie, enjoy your Sunday.

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      4 years ago

      A very unique period in the evolution of Hollywood. Thank you for the points!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Very interesting lens for the early history of cinema. I knew all the answers (it's one of my hobbies) but it doesn't matter. It was fun to take it anyway.


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