George Gershwin and Al Jolson
We are now going back in time to review the Broadway musical extravaganza called Sinbad, produced by the Shubert brothers, Lee and J.J. It was the fifth show in 1918 and opened on February 14th. It had a score by Sigmund Romberg and a large cast. But it had something else; a very special performer who interpolated his specialty songs into the show. Many of those tunes were composed by Jean Schwartz. The performer’s name was Al Jolson.
Romberg was under contract to the Shubert brothers; and, according to Gerald Bordman, we know nothing about the Romberg score. “Only Jolson’s interpolations remain…”
Moreover, there is a connection between Sinbad and the Demi-Tasse Revue that we discussed in the last two posts (which we mistakenly identified as being produced in 1918, when it was actually produced in October 1919). Even more importantly, there is a connection between George Gershwin and Al Jolson. It is about time that we introduced you to these two men.
Gershwin was the youngest son of Moishe (later changed to Morris) Gershowitz. Moishe fell in love with Roza (later changed to Rose) Bruskina. The Bruskina family moved to New York because of increasing hostility toward Jews in Lithuania, part of the Russian Empire. As soon as Moishe could save the money, he followed Roza to New York and lived with an Uncle in Brooklyn. Morris married Rose in New York in July 1895 and soon Americanized his name to Gershwine. Ira was born in December1896, and George followed in September 1898.
As a teenager, Gershwin started out as a “song-plugger” at Jerome H. Remick & Co., stayed there for two years and then left in early 1917. He accepted $35 a week to be the rehearsal pianist for a Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert show, called Miss 1917 . The show was being produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and Charles Dillingham, with a book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton but was not successful. However, everyone was impressed with the rehearsal pianist, including Harry Askin, a friend of Max Dreyfus at T.B. Harms. Askin wanted to introduce Gershwin to Dreyfus immediately, but the young pianist had already accepted a tour with Marie Dressler, as her accompanist.
When he returned from the tour in 1918, Gershwin met with Dreyfus, who was impressed with the young man’s earnestness, particularly when he tried to explain the kind of songs he wanted to write. “He was the kind of man I like to gamble on,” Dreyfus said, “and I decided to gamble.” Dreyfus laid out his terms—a drawing account of $35 a week, no set duties or hours; a commitment to keep writing songs and submitting them to Dreyfus. From 1918, Harms became the exclusive publisher of all of Gershwin’s music.
Gershwin’s “Some Wonderful Sort of Someone” was interpolated into a show called Ladies First by its star, Nora Bayes, in 1918; when it went on tour, Bayes arranged for Gershwin to accompany her on stage for her specialty songs. At that point, she added a second Gershwin song, “The Real American Folk Song (Was a Rag).”
It was in Pittsburgh that a young Oscar Levant heard Gershwin’s piano playing for the first time. In his book, A Smattering of Ignorance, Levant relates: “I had never before heard such a brisk, unstudied, completely free and inventive playing, all within a consistent framework.” Unwilling to alter one of his songs to suit her tastes, the singer and her accompanist fell out and Gershwin returned to New York. Two things happened to him: he started to work with Irving Caesar as his lyricist, and Alex Aarons decided to follow in his father’s footsteps as a producer of Broadway shows.
While George Gershwin was born in New York, both Irving Berlin and Asa Yoelson were born in Russia. According to Wikipedia, Asa was born in or around 1885 and in 1891 watched his father, Moses, a rabbi and cantor, leave the family to find work in New York. By 1894, Moses had enough money to send for his wife and four children; and, by the time the boat arrived in April 1894, Moses had secured a position as cantor at the Talmud Torah Congregation in southwest Washington D.C. Then in 1895 tragedy struck and Asa’s mother, Nechama, died, leaving Asa in a “state of withdrawal” for seven months. Asa and his brother, Hirsch, became fascinated with show business and by 1897 the brothers were singing for coins on street corners, under the names Al and Harry. Their earnings were spent, in part, to buy tickets to shows at the National Theater.
Another source informs us that in 1906 Al Jolson became a singing waiter and vaudeville entertainer in New York. He first appeared on the Broadway stage in 1909. According to Wikipedia, J.J. Shubert was impressed with Jolson and booked him into 1911’s La Belle Paree at the Winter Garden. He gained audience popularity singing old Stephen Foster songs. By 1914, he was earning $1,000 a week, which was doubled to $2,000 per week by the time he opened in Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in 1916.
“In 1918, Jolson’s acting career would be pushed even further after he starred in the hit musical Sinbad.”
During the seven years from 1911 to 1918, Jolson developed his signature character, Gus. In tomorrow’s post, we will explain more about Gus.