Star of vaudeville and the early silver screen, Sophie Tucker was the self-proclaimed "Last of the Red Hot Mamas."
The stylistic ancestor of Bette Midler, Roseanne, and Joan Rivers, she was big, brassy, dynamic, sexy, and a feminist way ahead of her time. She sang songs like "I Don't Want to be Thin," and "I'm Living Alone (And I Like It)."
She was born Sophie (or Sonia) Kalish-Abuza on January 13, 1884, in transit between Russia and Poland as her mother immigrated to the US. Her parents were both orthodox, Russian-born Jews who settled in Hartford, CT, where her father opened a small restaurant. By the age of 10, Sophie was a popular figure in the restaurant, singing to the customers with her low, husky voice. She accompanied her sister on the piano at amateur shows, where she soon became an audience favorite. They would call for "the fat girl"- at the age of 13, she already weighed 145 pounds.
She eloped at the age of 16 with a man named Louis Tuck and gave birth to a son named Bert. Louis was Sophie's "first no-good husband," never finding work and relying on Sophie, who continued to work at her father's restaurant, to support them on what little she made. Later in her life, Sophie would recall, "I've been rich and I've been poor. Hon, rich is better."
In 1906, she divorced Tuck, left Bert with her parents, and took off to New York to make it on her own. She changed her name to Tucker and began performing in amateur shows again to support herself. Managers required her to wear blackface when she performed, fearing that otherwise the audience would reject a girl like Sophie, who was, as one manager put it, "so big and ugly."
In 1908, while working in a traveling burlesque show, she arrived in a town one night without any of her luggage- or makeup. She risked going on without the blackface, and the audience loved her. To use the vaudeville term, she 'panicked the house.' From then on, her vaudeville popularity soared.
After a stunt with the Ziegfeld Follies- where the women she worked with felt threatened by Sophie's ability to stay popular without resorting to playing dumb or acting infantile, coy, or shy- Sophie began headlining her own shows. Her humor, much like Mae West's, was aggressively sexual, despite the fact that, unlike Mae West, she was generally considered by audiences to be 'unattractive.' She capitalized on her 'fat girl' image, but did so with a certain brazen suggestiveness, singing songs like "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love."
She began recording and was a very popular singer of the 'tweens and twenties, using her booming voice first in the popular "Coon Shouter," or ragtime, style, and later capitalizing on the jazz craze, touring under "Sophie Tucker and Her Five Kings of Syncopation." Her gravelly, low voice made her perfect for this style, and she became known as "The Queen of Jazz." It's said that upon hearing her voice recorded for the first time, she proclaimed, "I sound like a foghorn!" Regardless, the audience loved her. In 1911, she recorded "Some of These Days," the tune that would become her theme song. Other hits of hers included That Lovin' Rag, That Lovin' Two-Step Man, That Lovin' Soul Kiss, Knock Wood, High Brown Blues, You've Gotta See Mama Every Night, Aggravation Papa, The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else, Red-Hot Mama, Bugle Call Rag, Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong, After You've Gone, and My Yiddishe Mama, which she recorded in both English and Yiddish. She raised some 4 million dollars in record sales, which she donated to service men during WWI.
After becoming a vaudeville legend in the US, she swept Europe, and, returning from her first trip to Berlin, in 1925, caused a national scandal by climbing out of the airplane wearing pants. "Yes," she proudly stated, "it was Sophie Tucker and not Marlene Dietrich who introduced pants in the U.S.A. They got me in the headlines and the newsreels and were good for laughs any place."
In the 1930's, as vaudeville started losing ground to radio and film, Sophie, like many of her contemporaries, headed for Hollywood. She made eight films, but unfortunately, her unapologetic unattractiveness didn't go over so well on the big screen, and she never became the sort of star that other ex- vaudevillians, like Mae West, did. Sophie often complained about how restrictive these new medias were compared to the low-brow burlesque and vaudeville of the wild, roaring twenties. As she told one radio interviewer, "You can't do this, you can't do that! I couldn't even say 'hell' or 'damn,' and nothing, honey, is more expressive than the way I say 'hell' or 'damn.'"
Sophie Tucker married and divorced twice more before giving up on marriage, proclaiming, in song, "There isn't going to be a fourth Mr. Ex/ And I'll be damned if I'm paying any more alimony checks/ I'm living alone and I like it." The song typifies Sophie's later days, where, still performing in clubs, she took an even brassier direction, not only pro-sex, but pro-every-other-taboo-she-could-find. She denounced marriage and monogamy, angry at the inequality in relationships and the lack of independence.
I'm a one ticket gal, free as the breeze/
I go where I like, I do what I please/
When I lock up my apartment, I've got all the keys/
I'm living alone and I like it./
If I wanna play gin, I stay up and I play gin./
I come home when I want to and when I walk in/
There's nobody growling at me, "Where the hell have you been?"/
I'm living alone and I like it./
No man buys my dresses or pays for my minks/
If I get a new hat trimmed with posies and trinks/
There's no darling husband yelling, "Take it off, it stinks!"/
I buy it, I wear it, and I like it!
Her later songs celebrate her femininity and sexuality- "You've Got to be Loved to be Healthy", "Aren't Women Wonderful", and "You've Got to See Mama Ev'ry Night," in which she tells an absent lover that "You've got to see Mama ev'ry night or you can't see Mama at all." In "Me and Myself," she proclaimed:
I want to take this opportunity to tell you folks/
That me and myself are real pals./
I wake up every morning, fresh as a lark,/
No one around me swearing about a collar button;/
Take my little exercise:/
Skip over to the mirror and say,/
The mirror smiles back and the day is started right./
Then at breakfast, when there's only one piece of toast left/ ,
I don't have to grab for it. Myself sez to me:/
'Soph, old girl, finish the toast. You must be hungry./ '
And I say to myself: 'I don't mind if I do.'/
No arguments at all.
She preformed in several Broadway shows, starting with Cole Porter's Leave It To Me! in 1938. Though her fame began to fade in the 50's and 60s, she continued to perform until the very end of her life, even occasionally on television, including several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Years of smoking resulted in lung cancer, and, as her voice declined, she specialized in half-sung, half-spoken philosophical songs and monologues. Her last appearances were in New York's Latin Quarter and London's The Talk of the Town, at the age of 78. In 1963, the Broadway musical Sophie, based on her life, debuted.
Sophie Tucker died on February 9, 1966, in New York City, of lung cancer. She is buried in Emanuel Cemetery in Westerfield, Connecticut. She is not forgotten.