Of course, with those words ("you ain't heard nuthin' yet") Al Jolson ushered in an era of movie sound that changed the face of American entertainment forever. But, prior to that day in 1927, Jolson had already given us much that we had not heard before and in many respects, he also changed the face and nature of American vaudeville stage performance and was arguably, the first true popular music performer mega star. Though he wrote a number of songs himself, his style of performance endeared him to many composers and having Jolson introduce a song was as close to a guarantee that the song would be a hit as could be found.
With this issue we will survey some of Jolson's fantastic music and combined with our companion biographical article, we hope to provide a broad view of one of America's greatest singers from the golden age of song. Once you've looked at this month;s feature, be sure to go see our biography on Jolson as well. There will be more music there for you too.
Come with us now in celebration of Al Jolson's life and style. As always, this issue is on two separate pages so don't miss page two of this issue.
Music by: Billy Merson
Lyrics by: Merson
Cover artist: none
This rather odd novelty song is the earliest"Jolson": song we have in our collection, barely into his career, Jolson performed it in the stage show, "The Honeymoon Express." Subtitled on the cover as "Al Jolson's Great Spanish Song," I'm not sure if any song could be less Spanish than this one. The charm of this song is in the words and certainly not the music. If it were not for Jolson's involvement and it's early significance to his career, this song should probably been completely forgotten the week after it's first performance. However, perhaps because of it's quirky and zany nature, it seemed to have survived for several decades, even once being recorded by Bing Crosby.
Though this song is copyrighted 1911 and was originally performed by
the composer in English music halls, the show Honeymoon Express
was not staged till February, 1913 as a musical revue at the Wintergarden
Theater. At that point, the song became a hit. It (Honeymoon Express)
also reappeared in 1926. The Wintergarden was arguably the premiere venue
for the best shows and performers during the golden age of song and vaudeville.
The Wintergarden is still in use in New York and continues to be a top
theater on Broadway. The 1913 staging boasted a fabulous cast including
Jolson, Fanny Brice and Gaby Deslys. The show enjoyed 156 performances
before closing and was perhaps the seminal event in making Jolson a star.
The song was recorded by Merson (the composer) himself in 1911, later
by Jolson in 1913. The song appears in three Jolson related movies, The
Singing Fool (part "talkie", part silent), 1928; The
Jolson Story, 1946 and Jolson Sings Again, 1949
Billy Merson was a popular British music hall performer and songwriter
and is considered one of the greats of the music hall era. Merson also
was a comedian, often paired with George Formby Senior. Though born in
Nottingham, that was Northern enough for those down in London. Merson
sang that old favorite"The Spaniard That Blighted My Life" recorded
in 1911. And why shouldn't he? He wrote the song after all and so tapped
into the native suspicion of his audiences in all parts of the theater
that foreigners were "dirty dogs" not to be trusted.
Hear this early Jolson work Printable sheet music (scorch format only)
The Wintergarden continued to be Jolson's venue of choice and by 1915, he had already established himself as a powerful force in musical performance. His beginnings in show business as a minstrel (see our biography of Jolson for details) had endeared him to songs of the South, Dixie and "mammy" songs and this song was one of his earliest hits in that genre. One of many songs written for Jolson, this one came when Jolson was hitting his stride at the Wintergarden Theater. That theater more or less was Jolson's personal palace. He began holding concerts there in 1912 and in 1913 Jolson won a seven year contract to perform there with the astounding salary of $1,000 per week and a bonus of $10,000. In spite of those incredible sums, Jolson was able to play the vaudeville circuit when not obligated to the Schuberts for $2,500 per week!
Tennessee is a fine song but only a shadow of what was to come in terms of the Dixie oriented songs by Jolson. In just a few more years, Jolson's songs of Dixie and Mammy would explode on the scene and he would have hit after hit with that theme and would appear in and out of blackface for the rest of his career.
Enjoy this early "Dixie" hit Printable sheet music (scorch format only)
In February of 1916, the Lee and J.J. Schubert staged the Broadway show Robinson Crusoe, Jr., starring Jolson and of course performed at the Wintergarden. With Music by Sigmund Romberg and James Hanley; book by Harold Atteridge and Edgar Smith; Lyrics by Harold Atteridge and Edgar Smith, this song was a spin-off to the standard songs in the show. The show starred a number of other popular stage stars but as usual, Jolson dominated and took over the show. The show enjoyed 139 performances, but is largely lost and forgotten today. It was at this show that Jolson was first billed as "the world's greatest entertainer," a phrase that Jolson truly believed and helped inflate an already exploding ego. Among the songs featured in the show was Yaaka Hula Hickey Doola, (MIDI) one of our featured Hawaiian songs from our feature in December 1999.
Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday On Saturday Night is a whimsical look, and historically inaccurate novelty song that is fun and musically memorable. It has that 1916 era charm and has plenty of good humor and innuendo to titillate the listener. With an upbeat tempo and a cute story, who could resist this song. It was one of Jolson's favorites and one he sang frequently in his Wintergarden and vaudeville extravaganzas.
Music by: Pete Wendling
Words by Sam M. Lewis & Joe Young
Cover artist: Barbelle
Jolson was deeply affected by the First World War and sang a number of songs that spoke to the pain of loss and futility of war. His soulful singing style lent itself to this kind of doleful song and Jolson could play it up like few others could. This particular song is typical of his wartime efforts and speaks to the loss a child feels for a daddy who is "over there." We've featured two other Jolson wartime songs in prior issues, Hello Central, Give Me No Man's Land (Scorch format) and what is perhaps the most sobering and pathetic song I've seen from the war era, War Babies. (You've got to see the cover to this one, featured in our series about World War One Music, you can see it as well as Hello Central on this page and you can also access the MIDI versions there too)
Sung slowly, this song is clearly a lullaby and you can just imagine Jolson's velvet voice crooning this to a teary eyed audience of home bodies while their loved ones were waging war across the sea. Marked andante moderato con espressione, there is no way to escape the pain and love in this beautiful song.
In 1918, Jolson starred in the stage play Sinbad which was a huge hit and generated this song, one of Jolson's many "signature" songs that when heard, never fail to conjure up his image. This song, as well as several featured on the second page of this feature, cannot be heard without either mentioning or thinking of Jolson, they are inextricably linked with him and probably always will be, at least until Jolson and his songs become ancient history.
Sinbad opened at the Winter Garden on February 14, 1918 and ran for 164 performances. The show was written by Harold Atteridge with music by the great Sigmund Romberg as well as Jolson himself and produced by the Schuberts. The show had 27 musical numbers making it a true musical showcase for Jolson and the remaining cast, all of which are unheard of today. Jolson's recording of this work was a top selling hit and he performed it many times including three of his films, Rose of Washington Square (1939), The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again. In addition, the song often stood on its own without Jolson as in The 1929 production, The Show Of Shows, The Merry Monahans (1944) and strange as it may seem, a 1956 Jerry Lewis recording that was on the hit parade for over three months.
Enjoy this great American song (scorch)
Jolson's famous line, besides coming from the above described performance, turned up a few years later in a song he co-wrote with Gus Kahn. This song's title predated his use of the term in the Jazz Singer by some eight years. In our special biography of Jolson, we learn that Jolson first used the line in 1918 at a benefit concert with the great tenor, Enrico Caruso. The line was not remembered much, in spite of this little known song, till Jolson used it in the 1927 movie that changed movie history.
In spite of a songwriting team that was one of the best in Tin Pan Alley, this song is little mentioned in Jolson biographies and is among the very few songs sung or written by Jolson that did not become mega hits. The melody is pleasant and the story the lyrics tell (see link below or the scorch version) is cute yet it somehow just does not rise to the level of most of Jolson's other songs. Regardless, it is a good song and deserves preservation and publication as an important historical musical document.
George Gard ("Buddy") De Sylva (b. 1895 New York City - d. 1950, Hollywood) Though New York born, De Sylva grew up in California and attended USC. He gained an early interest in show business and tried writing a few songs. He met Al Jolson around 1917 or 18 and Jolson convinced him to go to New York and used several of De Sylva's songs in Sinbad and other shows. Jolson and De Sylva collaborated on many songs over the course of their association. In addition to Jolson's shows, he wrote songs for a number of other productions over the twenties and wrote a number of individual songs that became big hits. In 1925 he teamed with composer Ray Henderson and fellow lyricist Lew Brown to write several show scores into the thirties. In the mid 1930's, De Sylva turned to the movies and became a producer and produces several of Shirley Temple's best films. He ultimately rose to head of Paramount Pictures and was an executive with Capitol records.
De Sylva enjoyed a nearly lifelong association with Al Jolson and wrote many of his biggest hit songs. However, Jolson's hits were only a small part of his famous songs, many of which are still popular today. His many hits include, The Best Things In Life Are Free (1927); Button Up Your Overcoat (1928); You Are My Lucky Star (1928); California Here I Come (1922) and If You Knew Susie Like I Know Susie (1925). His last song was the 1939 song Love Affair from the movie Wishing.
Listen to this prophetic song (scorch format)
See our resources page for a complete bibliography of all resources used to research this and other articles in our series.