Al's relationship with his brother Harry was always a turbulent one. In retrospect it was probably the break up of the Jolson, Palmer and Jolson act which finally took Al to the top.

 

For many years his brother Harry continued to work in vaudeville after Al's success being billed as Al Jolson's brother Harry.

 

It hurt Harry to be billed that way but he was told that it was either be billed like that or there would be no billing at all. Harry was described as a similar performer to his famous brother but without the "power".

 

On his own now Al put an ad in variety "Watch me," it said "I'm a wow!" He was certainly that when the 20 year old played San Francisco in October 1906 just after the earthquake.

 

It was while performing in one of those makeshift stages that Jolson is said to have coined his famous catchphrase : "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet!" There wasn't to be a live Jolson performance in the next 44 years in which that phrase wasn't uttered.  

Lew Dockstader, 1902
Lew Dockstader, 1902

In 1907 Al married for the first time. His bride was 19 year old Henrietta Keller. He was 21.

 

That year a dapper young agent called Arthur Klein saw Al at work in one of the early cinemas in El Paso, Texas.

 

"Blackface, white socks, straw hat the man electrified me." Klein tried to convince Al to let him be his manager but Jolson thought he could do it all on his own.

 

 

Will Oakland suggested Al as a replacement for Johnny King of Lew Dockstader's Minstrels. He signed with the show in 1908.

 

Jolson's blackface is now considered an insult to the negro but back then it was just another theatrical convention. It must be said that it would have been extremely difficult to mistake one of Dockstader's men for a real negro.

In his Broadway shows at the Winter Garden Jolson's blackface character Gus was to demonstrate a vivacity and elan nobody else would dare exhibit. It was certainly not a derogatory characterisation, in fact Gus was often a few steps ahead of the other characters.

 

In those days blackface was the only way black music like ragtime could be heard on the stage. The roots of black and white vaudeville can be found in minstrelsy.

 

Jolson himself was no racist as this story from the black songwriting team Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake demonstrates. In December 1919 they played Hartford at the same time as Al was there with his Broadway show Sinbad

 

"After we did our first show, "recalled Sissle, "we went into a dirty little restaurant to get a bite, but the owner took one look at us and said, "We don't serve coloured people. Get the hell out of here."

 

"Well we were pretty sore about it, but there wasn't anything to do but get out. By accident we bumped into a reporter from one of the local papers and told him about the incident. Sure enough the next day the paper carried an item about it. And to our everlasting amazement we promptly got a call from Al Jolson. He was in town with his show and even though we were two very unimportant guys whom he'd never heard off till that morning, he was so sore about that story he wanted to make it up for us.

 

"Well that night he came in a big car and said he was taking us to the swellest restuarant in town and he'd punch anybody in the nose who tried to kick us out. I can't tell you how grateful we were to him but we told him we didn't like to go anywhere we weren't wanted.

 

Then Jolson said "Wait a minute I know where we can have a good time!" He turned the car round drove us to a Jewish delicatessen and treated us to a wonderful meal. Then he brought up a load of pastrami sandwiches and took them out to the car. We sat in the car till the early hours of the morning eating our heads off and listening to the greatest star in America performing just for us!"