The Boy from Oz Who Loved the King of Broadway
The story of how the late, great Australian singer/songwriter Peter Allen was inspired by and exuded the performing essence of the legendary Al Jolson. By Stephen Hanks
This past October 23 was the 70th anniversary of the death of Al Jolson. Why was this significant and a shame it wasn’t remembered by more than Jolson aficionados? Because before there was Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, Kanye and Jay-Z, Justin Beiber and Beyonce, Madonna and Michael Jackson, The Boss and Billy Joel, before there was Barbra, Elvis, Frank, or Judy . . . a son of Lithuanian Jews, who immigrated to America with his parents at age five, was arguably the first American pop superstar of the 20th century. And until he died in 1950 at age 64, Al Jolson was acknowledged as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”
At his memorial service in Los Angeles, the actor/comedian George Jessel said of Al Jolson: “The entertainment world has lost its king. But we cannot cry, ‘The King is dead, long live the King!’ for there is no one to hold his scepter.”
During the nearly 40 years before his death, Al Jolson had been America’s preeminent entertainment pioneer. He was the first performer to do one-man shows, the first to take Broadway musicals on national tour, and the first to entertain American combat troops overseas. He starred in the first talking picture — The Jazz Singer — recorded the first million-selling record — “Sonny Boy” — and was the first entertainer to have two films — both hugely successful — based on his life (The Jolson Story in 1947 and Jolson Sings Again in 1949).
The list of iconic American entertainers who were influenced or inspired by or idolized the legendary “Jolie “includes Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Lewis, Eddie Fisher, Neil Diamond, and even Rod Stewart, just to name a few.
But there was another colorful entertainer who was imbued with the Jolson magic from the time he was five years old until he died in 1992 at age 48 — the electric Australian-born singer/songwriter Peter Allen, who was one of the world’s most popular concert performers and recording stars during the 1970s and ‘80s.