Naomi Yoelson, Asa's beloved mother
Naomi Yoelson, Asa's beloved mother

The real Jolson story began many miles away from Broadway in the village of Srednicke, Russian Lithuania.

 

Here sometime during the 1880s (we aren't totally sure when as the Jews of Srednicke never kept birth certificates) Asa Yoelson was born to Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson and Naomi Cantor Yoelson. 1886 is the usually quoted date though Al looked older than his early 60s in the late 1940s.

 

 

 

 

Asa was the youngest of the family which also included another boy Hirsch and two girls, Rose and Etta. As the youngest Asa was his mother's favourite. It was the beginning of the growth of little Asa's ego.

 

Unfortunately life in Srednicke became increasingly dangerous with Russian cossacks rampaging through Jewish villages. Moshe decided that the family should go to the New World but wanted to establish himself first with a synagogue before sending for the rest of the family. 

Rabbi Moshe Yoelson, Asa's father
Rabbi Moshe Yoelson, Asa's father

Moshe left for the USA in 1890 but it was four years before the rest of the family joined him. By then he had become established in Washington DC.

 

Naomi had been a single parent in all practical respects so its not surprising Asa was so close to her. It must have been extremely upsetting for the 8 year old in 1895 when he heard his mother scream in agony in childbirth. Asa rushed up to her bedroom but his mother looked straight through him.

 

 

Years later Al would interpolate these lines into his signature song My Mammy : "Mammy, mammy look at me, don't you know me ? I'm your little baby." Was he recalling that moment when his mother hadn't recognised him ? It is likely he was. Anyway she died soon after leaving a gaping hole in Asa's life.   

Asa became disillusioned with religion because God hadn't saved his mother. For a time he became very withdrawn what shook him out of it was the exciting world of the theatre when he saw Al Reeves' Big Company at Washington's Kernans Lyceum Theatre.  

 

Asa and Hirsch calling themselves Al and Harry were soon in full scale revolt against the old ways of religious study. Moshe reasoned that they needed a new mother so he married Hessi Yoels. Although both boys were to grow fond of her in later years they initially saw her as an intruder. For Al in particular nobody could replace his mother, possibly nobody ever did.  

 

At the age of 15 Harry ran away to New York and was soon followed by his younger brother. Al walked down the Bowery and heard Fay Templeton rehearsing a song called "Ma Blushin' Rosie". That's a song for a man not a woman thought Al. He kept walking and as he said years later, he got hungrier and hungrier until he came to a restaurant called McGirks where steaming food was handed out to the patrons. Al came to an agreement with the owner : "If I sing a song will you give me something to eat ?" As he had seen starving boys before the proprietor agreed and through the smoke-filled atmosphere of McGirks came the sound of 12 year old Al singing "Ma Blushin' Rosie".

 

It was the first public performance of a boy who was to become a showbusiness legend singing one of his best loved songs. Its unlikely that anyone in that restaurant realised he would still be singing that song 50 years later.