Sophie Tucker (13 January 1886 – 9 February 1966) was a Russian/Ukrainian-born American singer and actress. 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.”
“Some Of These Days”
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish (Russian Соня Калиш) to a Jewish family in Tulchyn, 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 arestaurant.
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.)
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 simpleminstrel 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.
“The Man I Love”
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 Americanculture, 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.
“The Lady Is A Tramp”
Tucker made several popular recordings. They included “Some of These Days“, which came out in 1911 on Edison Records. The tune, written by Shelton Brooks, was a hit, and became Tucker’s theme song. Later, it was 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 ofnostalgia for the early years of 20th century into her show. She was billed as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” as her heartysexual appetite was a frequent subject of her songs, unusual for female performers of the era.
“He Hadn’t Up Till Yesterday”
“My Yiddishe Mama”
Such was Tucker’s notoriety and cultural influence that, as late as 1963, three years before her death, Paul McCartney jokingly introduced the song “Til 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 provided the laughs.
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