Sophie Tucker (January 13, 1886 – 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."
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish (Russian Соня Калиш) to a Jewish family in Tulchyn, Russian Empire, now Vinnytsia Region, Ukraine. Only three months later, the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Hartford, Connecticut. There, the family changed its name to Abuza, and her parents opened a restaurant.
At a young age, she began performing in her parents' restaurant, singing and playing the piano for tips. Tucker got her start at this singing for customers as they would wait, saying "I 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 17, Tucker eloped with a local beer cart driver named Louis Tuck and decided to change her name to Tucker. When she returned home, her parents arranged an Orthodox wedding for the couple and in 1906, she gave birth to a son, Bert. However, shortly after Bert was born, the couple divorced and Tucker left the baby with her parents to move to New York.
After leaving her husband, Willie Howard of the Howard Brothers gave a letter of recommendation to Harold Von Tilzer, a composer and theatrical producer in New York. Despite Tilzer not wanting to hire her, Tucker found work in cafés and beer gardens, singing for food and money from the customers. This money she sent back home to Connecticut to support her son and family.
In 1907, Tucker began in theatre, singing at an amateur night in a vaudeville club. 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 New England and was ashamed to tell her family the nature of her profession. While touring, her luggage was lost and Tucker was allowed to go on stage without blackface. She then amazed 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." This "fat girl" humour became a common thread within her acts, with songs like "I don't want to be Thin," and "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, but Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love."
In 1909, at the age of 22, Tucker first performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. Though popular, other female stars refused to share the spotlight with Tucker and the actress eventually left Zigfeld'sFollies and was hired by William Morris of the William Morris Agency, a talent agency of the day. 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.
Sophie Tucker's autograph in a copy of her 1945 autobiography
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 hired stars such as Mamie Smithand Ethel Waters to give her vocal lessons.
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. She also made the first of her many movie appearances in the 1929 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 era.
By the 1920s, Tucker's success had spread into Europe, and she began a tour of the continent, performing for King George V and Queen Mary at the London Palladium in 1926 and in Berlin later that year. 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.
Sophie Tucker in the 1920s
One of the main causes that affected Tucker was the decline of vaudeville. Performing at the final show at Tony Pastor's Palace in New York City, saying, "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." 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 pictureHonky 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.
American Federation of Actors
In 1938, Sophie Tucker helped unionise the American Federation of Actors, an early actors' trade union. Later that year, she was elected its president. The union included radio performers and was chartered as a branch of the Associated Actors and Artistes. 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 is still in existence today.
Tucker continued working 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 Tucker". 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, Miami Beach, Florida on 16 February 1964. As there was a much smaller audience reaction to the line in Miami Beach, John Lennon sarcastically provided the laughs.
Between 1938–1939, she had her own radio program, Sophie Tucker and Her Show, broadcasting 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, "The Ed Sullivan Show," and The Tonight Show.In the 1950s and early 1960s Tucker, now also called "The First Lady of Show Business," made frequent television appearances on many popular variety and talk shows of the day such as "The Andrews Sisters", "The Radio Hall of Fame," and "Ben Bernie, The Old Maestro." . 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 13 April 1963, a Broadway musical entitle "Sophie," based on her early life up until 1922, opened with Libi Staiger as the lead. It closed after eight performances.
Photo of Tucker from 1952
Sophie Tucker died of a lung ailment and kidney failure on 9 February 1966 in New York at age 80. Tucker had continued working up until the months before her death, playing shows at the Latin Quarter weeks before her death. She is buried in Emmanuel Cemetery in Wethersfield, Connecticut, her home state.
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, whom she eloped with in 1903. The marriage produced Tucker's only child, a son named Bert. In 1906 the couple divorced and Tucker left Bert with her parents, supporting them with money from her sing and acting jobs in New York.
Tucker's second and third marriages to Frank Westphal (1917 - 1919), her accompanist, and Al Lackey (1923 - 1928), her manager, both ended in divorce and produced no children. 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. "
Bert was born to Tucker and her first husband in 1906 (the year of their divorce), and then raised by her sister Ann for most of his life. The two apparently had a good relationship, keeping in touch and sending the money she earned to her family in order to take care of him and themselves. Tucker had no other children.