Sophie Tuck (January 13, 1887 – February 9, 1966), known professionally as Sophie Tucker, was a Ukrainian-born American singer, comedian, actress, and radio personality. Known for her powerful 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 Sofya "Sonya" Kalish (in Russian, Софья «Соня» Калиш) in 1887 to a Jewish family en route to America from Tulchyn, Podolia Governorate, Russian Empire, now Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine. ("Sonya" is a nickname for the name "Sofya", the Russian form of the name Sophie.) The family adopted the surname Abuza, settled in Hartford, Connecticut, and opened a restaurant.
At a young age, she began singing at her parents' restaurant for tips. Between taking orders and serving customers, she "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 Louis Tuck, a beer cart driver, from whom she would later derive her professional surname. When she returned home, her parents arranged an Orthodox wedding for the couple. 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.
After she left her husband, Willie Howard gave Tucker a letter of recommendation to Harold Von Tilzer, a composer and theatrical producer in New York. When it failed to bring her work, Tucker found jobs in cafés and beer gardens, singing for food and tips from the customers. She sent most of what she made back home to Connecticut to support her son and family.
In 1907, Tucker made her first theater appearance, singing at an amateur night in a vaudeville establishment. It was here that she was first made to wear blackface during performance, as her producers thought that the crowd would tease 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.
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." Tucker also began integrating "fat girl" humor, which became a common thread in her acts. Her songs included "I Don't Want to Get Thin" and "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love."
In 1909, at the age of 22, Tucker performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. Though she was a hit, the other female stars refused to share the spotlight with her, and the company was 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. The title of the song was later used as the title of Tucker's 1945 biography.
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 her, 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. Tucker 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 to 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 number 1 position of the charts for five weeks beginning 23 November 1926. It sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
Tucker was strongly affected by the decline of vaudeville. Speaking about performing in the final show at E. F. Albee's Palace in New York City, she 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." 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.
The cartoon The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos caricatures Tucker as "Sophie Turkey".
In 1938, Tucker was elected president of the American Federation of Actors, an early actors' trade union. 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. In 1939, the union was disbanded by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for financial mismanagement. However, Tucker was not implicated in the proceedings. The AFL later issued a charter for the succeeding American Guild of Variety Artists, which remains active.
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In 1938–1939 she had her own radio show, The Roi Tan Program with Sophie Tucker, broadcast on CBS for 15 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 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 remained popular abroad, performing for fanatical 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 to perform for the rest of her life. In 1962, she performed in the Royal Variety Performance, which was also broadcast on the BBC. She appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 3, 1965. For the color broadcast, her last television appearance, she performed Give My Regards to Broadway, Louise, and her signature, Some Of These Days.
Tucker was married three times. Her first marriage was to Louis Tuck, a beer cart driver, with whom she eloped in 1903. The marriage produced Tucker's only child, Albert. In 1906 the couple separated, and Tucker left Albert with her family, supporting them with money from her singing jobs in New York. They were divorced in May 1913. Albert was raised by Tucker's sister Annie. The sisters had a close relationship and kept in touch with weekly letters.
Her second marriage, to Frank Westphal (1917–1920), her accompanist, and her third marriage, to Al Lackey (1928–1934), her manager, both ended in divorce and produced no children. She 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."
Tucker died of lung cancer and kidney failure on February 9, 1966, in New York, at age 82. She had continued working until the months before her death, playing shows at the Latin Quarter just weeks before. She is buried in Emanuel Cemetery, in Wethersfield, Connecticut, her home state.
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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. She also influenced Miami-based radio and television host-cum-singer Peppy Fields, sister of noted pianist Irving Fields, whom Variety and Billboard magazines called the "Sophie Tucker of Miami".
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.
Tucker is briefly mentioned in the lyrics of the song "Roxie" from the musical Chicago ("And Sophie Tucker'll shit I know/To see her name get billed below/Roxie Hart") and was cited as the main influence for the character Matron "Mama" Morton.
A popular music revue, Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, developed by Florida Studio Theatre (FST), in Sarasota, 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 in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Toronto. Kathy Halenda, who originated the role of Tucker in the production, returned to FST for a limited engagement of "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas" in March 2012.
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