Al Jolson was considered one of the really great entertainers of his time [although his use of blackface later became the subject of criticism].
The blackface jazz singer, known for his full-throated, bouncy rendition of such tunes as "Swanee," "Sonny Boy" and "Mammy," died in a hotel room in San Francisco at 54, after abruptly leaving a gin rummy game with friends to rest.
Jolson, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, was only a boy when the family immigrated to America and settled in Washington, D.C. The son of a Jewish cantor, he broke with his father's wishes to also become a cantor in order to pursue a stage career.
After being discovered by the Shuberts, Jolson appeared in Winter Garden productions and later had parts in a number of Broadway plays including "Dancing Around," "Robinson Crusoe Jr.," "Sinbad," "Wonder Bar" and "Hold On to Your Hats."
His singing of "Mammy" brought him more fame and led to the leading role in "The Jazz Singer," generally credited with introducing the talking motion picture in 1927.