photo with General George Patton
Jolson Sings Again
by Martin Abramson
from “The Real Story of Al Jolson,” 1950
The hail of Japanese bombs on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, shook Jolson out of his continuing moods of lethargy and despair. Almost as soon as Congress formalized a declaration of war, the mammy singer dedicated himself to a new mission in life. Maybe Hollywood didn’t give a hoot whether or not Jolson ever sang again, but American soldiers by the millions were being strung out in bases all over the world. In their lonely isolation, wouldn’t they welcome entertainment from home? Even before the U.S.O. began to set up a formal program overseas, the excitable Jolson was deluging War and Navy Department brass with phone calls and wires. He demanded permission to go “anywhere -in the world where there is an American serviceman who wouldn’t mind listening to ‘Sonny Boy’ or ‘Mammy’.”
There was no artificial flag-waving involved in Jolson’s anxiety to serve. Unlike some other entertainers, he had always been frankly emotional about his love of country and a patriotic song was as likely to break him up as the most tear-jerking ballad. His attempt to fight in the Spanish American War as a 15-year-old had been compounded of a desire to run away as well as to serve, but when he was turned down by the Army in World War I he had worked ceaselessly in Liberty Bond drives. Now at 59, the only military asset he possessed was his singing voice and he meant to use it to the hilt.
Early in 1942, Jolson was cleared for a flight to the Caribbean and he became the first star to perform at a GI base in World War II. In a private’s uniform, he appeared before small units in the steaming forests of Trinidad and Curacao, did four shows a day in the jungle outposts in Central America and covered the string of Naval bases. He paid for part of his transportation out of his own pocket. Then with a swift change of scene from the tropics to the Arctic, he flew to Alaska and performed up and down the frigid, bleak chain of Aleutian Islands.
Tour of England
In August, 1942, Jolie was winging over the Atlantic headed for England and Ireland. While fellow passengers nervously riveted their attention on the U-Boat-dotted Atlantic below, Jolson was busy regaling the crew with songs and patter. The plane arrived in London on a day that German sky raiders were pockmarking the British landscape with fire bombs. Jolson immediately plunged into a tension-packed 60-day tour of Army bases that were filling up with GI’s arriving from the States. He returned to the U. S. still bubbling with nervous energy and began making long distance calls to relatives of GI’s whom he’d met overseas. Within three weeks, he was launched on a nationwide tour of serviceman’s camps.
In 1943, Jolson was off again. He appeared at Pacific bases and in India and then shortly after the North African invasion, made a long tour through Algiers and Morocco with his accompanist, Harry Akst. When the trade press asked him for a report on his trip, he dashed off a letter to Variety, from Marakesh, French Morocco.
“Akst and I sure have seen some hell-holes,” he wrote. “Our first stop out of New York was Georgetown, British Guiana . . . We arrived at 4 p.m., did two shows and left by plane for Belem, Brazil. We had softie powdered eggs and powdered milk for breakfast, then clowned around and did a few songs for the boys till show time .. At our regular show, we performed before 3,000 GIs … Right after that, we did another show for the Navv and a third, for the local population … The mosquitoes gave us rough time all night but we had to get up at 5 a.m. in order to make the plane to Recife … After our show there, we flew back to Natal, did a number of hospital shows and got up at four the next morning to fly the South Atlantic. It was raining cats and dogs at four so we waited around till the weather cleared up and in the meantime, did another hospital show.
“We finally made the nine-hour flight across the ocean and arrived at Dakar at 9 p.m. What a hole that is! We had a dinner of Spam and atabrine tablets, then raced by jeep over dusty, rocky roads for 20 miles to a GI camp … We had to do a big outdoor show in darkness because the lights went blooey, but luckily there was an Army truck that put the spotlight on me so the boys could see me … Would you believe it, it began to rain just as I sang ‘April Showers’! . . . On the way back to Dakar, the jeep overturned in the mud, but some engineers pulled us out . . . In between slapping insects, we did a number of shows the next few days for the Air Corps, Signal Corps and Engineers . . . Then we took a bumpy plane ride over the Atlas Mountains, arrived in French Morocco, and got our first good night’s sleep in weeks . . . We did a few shows there and flew here to Marakesh … We’re eating Spam today and we’ve got three shows to do tonight and then we’ll be off again . . . but after all, who are we to complain? . . .”
Off to Sicily
After his Morocco adventures, Jolson toured the dusty, mud-clogged battlefronts in Sicily. “The guy’s over 60 and yet he keeps putting out as if every song was the last one he was going to sing on earth,” an admiring infantry commander told accompanist Akst in Sicily. “How long can he keep going without breaking down?”
The inevitable caught up with Jolie after he’d toured a record 42,000 miles on his self-appointed U.S.O. mission. He was back in New York, greeting some of his old cronies in a midtown hotel, when he suddenly felt dizzy and broke out in a sweat. Later, his fever shot up to 105 and he was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia. His condition was complicated by an infection he’d picked up overseas and empyema set in. He was on the critical list for weeks, but when he recovered, he still had such an inexhaustible stockpile of energy that he was ready for another tour of the camps. He and Akst traveled by plane, bus and train to almost every state in the union.
“He’s the same old Jolie,” Akst reported. “He finds the most isolated places to go to, and every single song gets the full Jolson production. The boys are just nuts about him.”