Sophie Tucker, 1917
(Russian: Соня Калиш)
January 13, 1887
Tulchyn, Russian Empire, (now Ukraine)1
|Died||February 9, 1966
New York, New York2
|Other names||Sophie Abuza|
|Spouse(s)||Louis Tuck (1903 - 1913)2
Frank Westphal (1917 - 1920)
Al Lackey (1928 - 1934)4
Sophie Tucker (January 13, 1887 – February 9, 1966) was a Russian-born American singer, comedian, actress, and radio personality. Known for her stentorian delivery of comical and risqué songs, she was one of the most popular entertainers in America during the first half of the 20th century. She was widely known by the nickname "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas."5
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish (Russian Соня Калиш) to a Jewish family en route to America from Tulchyn, Russian Empire, now Vinnytsia Region, Ukraine.6 The family appropriated the last name Abuza, settled in Hartford, Connecticut, and opened a restaurant.
At a young age, she began singing at her parents' restaurant for tips.7 Between taking orders and serving customers, Sophie "would stand up in the narrow space by the door and sing with all the drama I could put into it. At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions there wasn't a dry eye in the place."
In 1903, at the age of 16, Tucker eloped with a local beer cart driver named Louis Tuck, from whom she would later derive her famous last name. When she returned home, her parents arranged an Orthodox wedding for the couple and in 1906, she gave birth to a son, Albert. However, shortly after Albert was born, the couple separated and Tucker left the baby with her family to move to New York.2
After she left her husband, Willie Howard gave Tucker a letter of recommendation to Harold Von Tilzer,2 a composer and theatrical producer in New York.8 Despite Tilzer not wanting to hire her, Tucker found work in cafés and beer gardens, singing for food and money from the customers. She sent most of this money back home to Connecticut to support her son and family.
In 1907, Tucker made her first theatre appearance, singing at an amateur night in a vaudeville establishment.2 It was here that Tucker was first made to wear blackface during performance as her producers thought that the crowd would razz her for being "so big and ugly." By 1908, she had joined a burlesque show in Pittsburgh but was ashamed to tell her family that she was performing in a deep southern accent wearing burnt cork on her face. While touring later that year, luggage including her makeup kit was lost and Tucker was allowed to go on stage without the blackface.4 She then stunned the crowd by saying, ""You all can see I'm a white girl. Well, I'll tell you something more: I'm not Southern. I'm a Jewish girl and I just learned this Southern accent doing a blackface act for two years. And now, Mr. Leader, please play my song."2 Tucker also began integrating "fat girl" humor which became a common thread in her acts with songs including "I Don't Want to be Thin," and "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love."4
In 1909, at the age of 22, Tucker performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. Though a hit, the other female stars refused to share the spotlight with Tucker and they were forced to let her go. This caught the attention of William Morris, a theater owner and future founder of the William Morris Agency, which would become one of the largest and most powerful talent agencies of the era. Two years later, Tucker released "Some of These Days" on Edison Records, written by Shelton Brooks. This song would later lend its name to the title of Tucker's 1945 biography.3
In 1921, Tucker hired pianist and songwriter Ted Shapiro as her accompanist and musical director, a position he would keep throughout her career. Besides writing a number of songs for Tucker, Shapiro became part of her stage act, playing piano on stage while she sang, and exchanging banter and wisecracks with her in between numbers. Tucker remained a popular singer through the 1920s, and became friends with stars such as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters who introduced her to jazz. Sophie learned from these talented women and became one of the first performers to introduce jazz to white vaudeville audiences.
In 1925, Jack Yellen wrote one of her most famous songs, "My Yiddishe Momme". The song was performed in large American cities where there were sizable Jewish audiences. Tucker explained, "Even though I loved the song and it was a sensational hit every time I sang it, I was always careful to use it only when I knew the majority of the house would understand Yiddish. However, you didn't have to be a Jew to be moved by My Yiddishe Momme." During the Hitler regime, the song was banned by the German government for evoking Jewish culture.
By the 1920s, Tucker's success had spread into Europe, and she began a tour of England, performing for King George V and Queen Mary at the London Palladium in 1926. Tucker re-released her hit song Some of These Days, backed by Ted Lewis and his band, which stayed at the #1 position of the charts for five weeks beginning 23 November 1926.9
One of the main things that affected Tucker was the decline of vaudeville. On performing in the final show at E.F. Albee's Palace in New York City, Sophie remarked, "Everyone knew the theater was to be closed down, and a landmark in show business would be gone. That feeling got into the acts. The whole place, even the performers, stank of decay. I seemed to smell it. It challenged me. I was determined to give the audience the idea: why brood over yesterday? We have tomorrow. As I sang I could feel the atmosphere change. The gloom began to lift, the spirit which formerly filled the Palace and which made it famous among vaudeville houses the world over came back. That's what an entertainer can do."2 During this time, Tucker began to look to film and radio as possible extensions of her career. In 1929, she made her first movie appearance in the sound picture Honky Tonk. During the 1930s, Tucker brought elements of nostalgia for the early years of 20th century into her show. She was billed as "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas," as her hearty sexual appetite was a frequent subject of her songs, unusual for female performers of the day after the decline of vaudeville.4
In 1938, Sophie Tucker was elected president of the American Federation of Actors, an early actors' trade union. 4 Originally formed for vaudeville and circus performers, the union expanded to include nightclub performers and was chartered as a branch of the Associated Actors and Artistes.10 In 1939, the union was disbanded by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for financial mismanagement. However, Sophie Tucker was not in any way implicated in the proceedings. The AFL later issued a charter for the succeeding American Guild of Variety Artists which remains active to this day.11
Between 1938–1939 she had her own radio show, The Roi Tan Program with Sophie Tucker, broadcasting on CBS for 15 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. She made numerous guest appearances on such programs as The Andrews Sisters, The Radio Hall of Fame, and Ben Bernie, The Old Maestro. In the 1950s and early 1960s Tucker, "The First Lady of Show Business," made frequent television appearances on many popular variety and talk shows of the day such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show . She continued to be popular abroad, performing for fanatic crowds in the music halls of London that were even attended by King George V. On April 13, 1963, a Broadway musical called "Sophie," based on her early life up until 1922, opened with Libi Staiger as the lead. It closed after eight performances.
Tucker continued performing throughout the rest of her life. Such was Tucker's notoriety and cultural influence that, as late as 1963, three years before her death, Paul McCartney jokingly introduced the song Till There Was You (from The Music Man) at The Beatles' Royal Command Performance at The Prince of Wales Theatre in London on 4 November by saying the song "had also been recorded by our favourite American group, Sophie Tucker12" in reference to Tucker's notorious girth (Tucker never recorded the song). McCartney also used the same quip, this time for an American audience, to introduce The Beatles' performance of I Want to Hold Your Hand as the finale of their set for The Ed Sullivan Show at The Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida on February 16, 1964. As there was a much smaller audience reaction to the line in Miami Beach, John Lennon sarcastically provided the laughs.
Sophie Tucker died of a lung ailment and kidney failure on February 9, 1966, in New York at age 79. Tucker had continued working up until the months before her death, playing shows at the Latin Quarter just weeks before her death. She is buried in Emmanuel Cemetery in Wethersfield, Connecticut, her home state.7
Sophie Tucker was married three times in her life, each lasting no longer than five years. Her first marriage was to Louis Tuck, a local beer cart driver, with whom she eloped in 1903. The marriage produced Tucker's only child, a son named Albert. In 1906 the couple separated and Tucker left Albert with her family, supporting them with money from her singing jobs in New York.2 They were legally divorced in May 1913.
Tucker's second and third marriages were to Frank Westphal (1917–1920), her accompanist, and Al Lackey (1928–1934), her manager. Both ended in divorce and produced no children.4 Tucker blamed the failure of her marriages on the fact that she had been too adjusted to economic independence saying, "Once you start carrying your own suitcase, paying your own bills, running your own show, you've done something to yourself that makes you one of those women men like to call 'a pal' and 'a good sport,' the kind of woman they tell their troubles to. But you've cut yourself off from the orchids and the diamond bracelets, except those you buy yourself."2
Albert was raised by Sophie's sister Annie. The sisters had a very close relationship and kept in touch with weekly letters. Sophie consistently sent money home to help support her family. Tucker had no other children.13
- Louisiana Lou (1911-1912) (Chicago and US national tour)
- Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1924 (1924) (Broadway)
- Leave It to Me! (1938) (Broadway and US national tour)
- High Kickers (1941-1942) (Broadway and US national tour)
- Honky Tonk (1929)
- Gay Love (1934)
- Paramount Headliner: Broadway Highlights No. 1 (1935) (short subject)
- Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937)
- Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937)
- Follow the Boys (1944)
- Sensations of 1945 (1944)
- Screen Snapshots: The Great Showman (1950) (short subject)
- Screen Snapshots: Hollywood's Great Entertainers (1953) (short subjects)
- The Heart of Show Business (1957) (short subject)
- The Joker Is Wild (1957) (Cameo)
Tucker's comic and singing styles are credited with influencing later female entertainers including Mae West, Rusty Warren, Carol Channing, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Ethel Merman, "Mama" Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas, and most notably Bette Midler who has included "Soph" as one of her many stage characters (and whose daughter Sophie is reputedly named after Tucker). She also influenced Miami-based radio and television host-cum-singer Peppy Fields, sister of noted pianist Irving Fields, who was called the Sophie Tucker of Miami by Variety and Billboard magazines. Her second album was to be named "The First Of The New Red Hot Mamas" but she refused to do so as long as Tucker was alive. Probably the greatest influence on Sophie's later song delivery was Clarice Vance (1870–1961). They appeared many times on the same vaudeville bill. Sophie made her first recordings in 1910, and Clarice made her final records in 1909. Clarice had perfected and was known for her subtle narrative talk-singing style that Sophie later used to her advantage when her vocal range became increasingly limited. At the time that Clarice Vance was using the narrative style it was unique to her among women entertainers.3
A popular music revue developed by Florida Studio Theatre (FST) in Sarasota entitled Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, celebrates Tucker's brassy and bawdy behavior, songs, and persona. Developed in-house by Artistic Director Richard Hopkins in 2000, it has enjoyed several productions across the country including theatres from New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Toronto. Kathy Halenda, who originated the role of Sophie Tucker in the production, returned to FST for a limited engagement of "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas" in March 2012.16
- Sophie Tucker: First Lady of Show Business - Armond Fields - Google Boeken. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-07-04.
- Jewish Women's Archive. "Jewish Women in Comedy - Sophie Tucker". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- Ecker, Sue and Lloyd. "Sophie Tucker - Bio". Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- "Sophie Tucker". About.com. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- Rosen, Judy. "A Century Later, She’s Still Red Hot". New York Times. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- "Sophie Tucker Biography". A+E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- "Biography for Sophie Tucker". IMDb.com, Inc. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- "Von Tilzer - Gumm Collection". Library of Congress. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- CD liner notes: Chart-Toppers of the Twenties, 1998 ASV Ltd.
- Stewert, Estelle May. Handbook of American trade-unions: 1936 edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
-  "Sophie spanked", TIME July 24, 1939
- Anthology 1, Disc 2, track 2
- Watkins, Maurine Dallas (1924). Chicago. p. 41.
- "What's On". Leeds City Council. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- Handelman, Jay. "FST celebrates construction and supporters at gala". Sarasota Herald Tribune. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sophie Tucker.|
- Sophie Tucker website
- Sophie Tucker at the Internet Archive
- Sophie Tucker at the Internet Movie Database
- Sophie Tucker at the Internet Broadway Database
- Sophie Tucker's entry in the JWA Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (Jewish Women's Archive)