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Sophie Tucker, 1917
|Birth name||Sonia Kalish|
|Born||January 13, 1886|
|Origin||Tulchyn, Russian Empire, now Ukraine|
|Died||February 9, 1966(aged 80)|
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. Her family emigrated to the United States when she was an infant, and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. The family changed its name to Abuza, and her parents opened a restaurant.
She started singing for tips in her family's restaurant. In 1903, at the age of 17, she was briefly married to Louis Tuck, from which she decided to change her name to Tucker. She bore a son with Tuck, named Bert. (She would marry twice more in her life, but neither marriage lasted more than five years.)
She continued performing in the U.S. and the United Kingdom until shortly before her death from lung cancer in 1966, at the age of 80. She was interred at Emanuel Cemetery in Wethersfield, Connecticut.
Tucker played piano and sang burlesque and vaudeville tunes, at first in blackface. She later said that this was at the insistence of theatre managers, who said she was "too fat and ugly" to be accepted by an audience in any other context. She even sang songs that acknowledged her weight, such as "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love".
She made a name for herself in a style that was known at the time as a "Coon Shouter", performing African American influenced songs. Not content with performing in the simple minstrel traditions, Tucker hired some of the best African American singers of the time to give her lessons, and hired African American composers to write songs for her act.
Tucker made her first appearance in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1909, but did not last long there because Florenz Ziegfeld's other female stars soon refused to share the spotlight with the popular Tucker.
William Morris, the founder of the William Morris Agency booked Tucker fresh off her Follies debut at his new American Music Hall. At a 1909 appearance, the luggage containing Tucker's makeup kit was stolen shortly before the show, and she hastily went on stage without her customary blackface. Tucker was a bigger hit without her makeup than with it, and, at the advice of Morris, she never wore blackface again. She did, however, continue to draw much of her material from African American writers as well as African American culture, singing in a ragtime- and blues-influenced style, becoming known for a time as "The Mary Garden of Ragtime", a reference to a famous operatic soprano of the era.
Tucker made several classic popular recordings. They included "Some of These Days", which first came out in 1911 on Edison Records and then again in 1926. The tune, written and composed by Shelton Brooks, was a huge hit, and became Tucker's career-long theme song and the title 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 Smith and Ethel Waters to give her 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 Yiddish Momme.' 'Mother' in any language means the same thing." 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.
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 lot less audience reaction to the line in Miami Beach, John Lennon sarcastically provided the laughs.
She made numerous popular film appearances, including Broadway Melody of 1938 as the mother of Judy Garland's character. In that film, Tucker sings a song during the big finale; even though she is playing a character and not herself, several neon lights displaying her real name light up in the background of the stage in tribute. In 2007, she was featured in the film Making Trouble, a tribute to female Jewish comedians, produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive.
In 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, and Ben Bernie, The Old Maestro.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, she made television appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, What's My Line, Person to Person, and The Tonight Show. One of her last TV appearances was on The Ed Sullivan Show October 3, 1965 broadcast in color. She sang a tribute to George M. Cohan and Maurice Chevalier, then finished with a rousing version of "Some of These Days".
- Louisiana Lou (1911) (Broadway)
- Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1924 (1924) (Broadway)
- Leave It to Me! (1938) (Broadway and US national tour)
- High Kickers (1941) (Broadway)
- 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)
In 1938, Tucker helped unionize the American Federation of actresses and was elected its president. In 1939, she was serving as its president when it was dissolved by the American Federation of Labor due to financial irregularities. Its successor was the American Guild of Variety Artists.
Tucker's comic and singing styles are credited with influencing later female entertainers, including Mae West, Rusty Warren, 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.
A popular music revue developed by Florida Studio Theatre (FST) in Sarasota, FL, 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.
- "From birth to age eighteen, a girl needs good parents. From eighteen to thirty-five she needs good looks. From thirty-five to fifty-five, she needs a good personality. From fifty-five on, she needs good cash."
- "I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better." (One of the earliest publications of this in book form, in 1955, attributes this quotation, without the "honey," to Joe E. Lewis. Earlier, the quotation appeared in the 1954 memoir "Men In Sandals" by Richard C. Madden. The quotation has also been ascribed to Gertrude Stein, Mae West, W.C. Fields, and others. Earliest non-book reference attributed Beatrice Kaufman, the wife of playwright George S Kaufman, in the form, "I've been poor and I've been rich. Rich is better!"
- Sophie Tucker: First Lady of Show Business - Armond Fields - Google Boeken. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-07-04.
- Anthology 1, Disc 2, track 2
- Deming, Mark. "Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women". New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2012.
- "Sophie spanked", Time July 24, 1939
- Keyser, Wayne. "Circus Lingo". Ballycast. Good Magic.
- 12 May 1937, Washington Post, “The Post’s New Yorker” by Leonard Lyons, pg. 12”
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Sophie Tucker|
- Sophie Tucker at the Internet Movie Database
- Sophie Tucker at the Internet Broadway Database
- Sophie Tucker on ibiblio.org
- Sophie Tucker's entry in the JWA Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (Jewish Women's Archive)