Al Jolson - The Decca Years 1945 -1950 (2019)

I haven't really stolen an idea from long-time fellow blogger, Jeff Ash, who publishes AM, Then FM, but his recent post, My Heart Belongs To Dad's Records, convinced me to go ahead with a similar post that has been bouncing around in my brain recently. Thanks, Jeff.

My childhood interest in music can be attributed to my mother who would have turned 101 earlier this year. She bought my sister and me a lot of kiddie 45 RPM records, many of them on the Golden, Disney and Cricket record labels.

Among my earliest memories of listening to music for adults were playing my Mom's 78 RPM records on my portable record player. Even when I was eight years old I thought a lot of her music sounded cheesy and dated, but I took a liking to her Glenn Miller, Harry James, Bing Crosby and Al Jolson records.

Miller and James sparked any interest in jazz that I have today, and we all know that Crosby was - and continues to be - a legend, especially at Christmastime. On the other hand, many people are only aware of Jolson as the star of The Jazz Singer, the first partially talking, feature-length movie with synchronized speech, way back in 1927.

My mother told me that Jolson was a massive multi-media star. He dominated the American music scene from World War One into the early 1930s. To this day I can't tell you why I liked him so much way back when, and the fact that I still do could be nothing more than simple nostalgia.

I only ever broke one of Mom's fragile 78s and it made her cry. Unfortunately, it was Jolson's version of "Anniversary Song," the record my father bought her as a present for their first wedding anniversary in 1952.

Jolson's voice was unique. His hipper songs featured jazzy, big band arrangements, but he also recorded a lot of material that sounded old-fashioned even in the late 1940s when he released seventy-one new songs. All of them are gathered together on The Decca Years 1945 - 1950, a three CD set that also includes nine previously unreleased, alternate takes. Jolson concentrated on radio, films and the stage during his later career. He hadn't recorded in thirteen years when he returned to the studio to make these sides for Decca.

The legend's older records were made on very primitive equipment. New, modern technology and early usage of reel-to-reel, magnetic recording tape beginning with Jolson's 1949 sessions allowed him to update many of his old standards. Almost all of the singer's work that we hear today comes from these Decca sessions, and because the music and fidelity are so superior to his records from the 1920s most people will find it is all of the Jolson they'll ever want or need.

During this five year period the famously Jewish entertainer recorded religious hymns such as "Kol Nidre;" "Hatikvoh," the Israeli national anthem; and a song called, "Cantor On The Sabbath." Ironically, Jolson also recorded "My Mother's Rosary," a track you wouldn't expect a good Jewish boy to release.

Today, many people may find Jolson offensive and difficult to listen to because he often performed live in blackface, a gimmick that is appropriately never used today. He also sang a lot of songs related to the American South of the Antebellum, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Among them were "My Mammy," "Swanee," "Is it True What They Say about Dixie?" and "Massa's In De Cold, Cold Ground." Despite all of this, many Black people considered Jolson an ally to their cause, and he attempted to integrate Broadway and the movies.

I have no idea how music listeners feel about this important, early 20th Century entertainment figure in the 21st Century, but when I stumbled across The Decca Years on Amazon a couple of weeks ago I ordered it immediately. When I popped disc one into my CD player - the one that contained all of the songs in my Mom's old collection - I instantly remembered exactly how every note sounded even though I hadn't heard most of the songs in over fifty years.

Happily, my mother's 78s survive to this day. They spent decades collecting dust in my basement because my turntable only has two speeds, but I never could bring myself to part with them because they meant so much to me as a child. Then, a few years ago my neighbor inherited an old Victrola from his late mother that needs to be cranked by hand, and I gave the records to him so he had something to play on it. At least the old 10-inch discs found a good home.

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