The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas and the First Lady of Show Business, Sophie Tucker was an aggressive, hilarious, self-assured singer/comedienne who was fat and proud of it. She made fun of her weight and was delightfully open about her interest in sex in songs such as “He Hadn’t Up Till Yesterday, But I Bet He Will Tonight,” “I May Be Getting Older Ever Day, But Getting Younger Every Night,” “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl,” and “You’ve Got to See Mama Every Night.” Tucker claimed, “I've never sung a single song in my whole life on purpose to shock anyone. My 'hot numbers' are all, if you will notice, written about something that is real in the lives of millions of people.”
Tucker was born Sonia Kalish in 1884 in Russia. Her father, trying to avoid military service, fled across the border with an Italian man and when the fellow passed away, Papa Kalish took the Italian’s name, Abuzza, and Sonia became Sophia and then Sophie. The family immigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where her father opened a Jewish restaurant. She married Louis Tuck, a beer wagon driver, in 1903 and they had a child, Bert. One day when she was working in the restaurant, Willie and Eugene Howard walked in. Sophie sang some songs for them. The brothers politely encouraged her, saying she should be on the stage and what a great voice she had. Imagine their surprise in 1906, when she showed up in New York having divorced her husband and left her son with her parents. The Howard brothers told her they had been kidding her, but she was determined to make it.
She eventually found work at the German Village Club where she made $15 a week singing and holding the “bank” for the prostitutes that worked the restaurant. She sang in such clubs as Kid McCoy’s Saloon, Kelly’s and Nigger Mike’s, the same spot where Irving Berlin got his start as a singing waiter. She worked with Berlin and he taught her the value of lyrics. Soon she found herself singing at Tony Pastor’s theatre. She went into burlesque and then vaudeville.
Tucker soon found herself performing in blackface because manager Chris Brown told her she had a funny face and should hide it. When she played the Boston Atheneum in 1907, her make-up kit didn’t arrive with the rest of her luggage. She went on stage and told the audience, “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.” She sang “That Lovin’ Rag” to thunderous applause. She exclaimed as she came off stage, “I can hold an audience without it. I’ve got them eating out of my hand. I’m through with blackface. I’ll never black up again.” Ziegfeld discovered her in Holyoke, Massachusetts and put her into the Follies of 1910. Jack Yellen gave her the famous nickname “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” and was instrumental in forming her persona. He wrote most of Tucker’s special material, usually in collaboration with Milton Ager. In 1910, she introduced what would become her most famous number, “Some of These Days.”
She performed some pretty controversial songs in her time, including “Mr. Siegel,” the story of a girl who sleeps with her boss and gets pregnant. Naturally, the boss won’t answer her phone calls. Hence the lyric, “Mr. Siegel, please make it legal.” Pretty controversial stuff. Bette Midler performs explicitly sexual (call them dirty) jokes in her act that she claims are Sophie Tucker’s—but Tucker never resorted to such material, nor could she have gotten away with it. Tucker was a huge hit in Europe and, in 1925, returned from an engagement in Berlin wearing pants. It was a shock at the time, but pants for women soon caught on, in part due to Tucker.
Ted Shapiro was Tucker’s accompanist for decades and when Tucker died she left him $50,000. She also left a good deal of her estate to the black maid who had traveled with her throughout her career. There were persistent rumors that they were lovers.
Tucker enjoyed a long career in vaudeville, on radio, and on television, and she made eight films. In the 1950s, having become well known in part through her many appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, she signed with Mercury Records and made a series of hit albums. She never stopped working, and only a few months before her death from lung cancer in 1966, she completed an engagement at the Latin Quarter nightclub. (KB)
In 1910, Sophie Tucker was appearing at the White City Park in Chicago when an unknown black songwriter, Shelton Brooks, approached her. She didn’t want to meet with him but her maid, Mollie Elkins, convinced her to give the guy a break. As Tucker remembers, “The minute I heard ‘Some of These Days,’ I could have kicked myself for almost losing it…. It had everything. Hasn’t it proved it? I’ve been singing it for thirty years, made it my theme. I’ve turned it inside out, singing it every way imaginable, as a dramatic song, as a novelty number, as a sentimental ballad, and always audiences have loved it and asked for it.”Some of These Days
On an impulse, I called up Sophie Tucker at the Claridge Hotel in New York. She bawled me out for spoiling her sleeping pill, but she listened, and when I finished singing, she was weeping. Between gulps, she asked me to send her a copy. She wrote me that her agents and friends suggested the title be changed to ‘Jewish’ or ‘Hebrew Mama,’ being afraid of the word, ‘Yiddish.’ I told her that if she sang it, it would be ‘Yiddisha Momme’ or nothing at all; and what is more, I insisted that she sing the chorus in Yiddish, the way I had written it.My Yiddisha Momme
Jack Yellen remembered, “Milton Ager and I finally became our own publishers because we couldn’t get a break with other publishers. We scraped together a few thousand dollars and rented a couple of rooms in a dilapidated building on Broadway. We were almost broke when Max Winslow, professional manager for Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder, phoned me to send over a copy of ‘Lovin’ Sam’ to his office. He wouldn’t tell me what he wanted it for. About two weeks later we heard that Grace Hayes had gone into The Bunch and Judy, an Otto Harbach-Jerome Kern show, and was a riot with ‘Lovin’ Sam’ in a cabaret scene. We paid off the sheriff and were in business.”Lovin’ Sam, The Sheik of Alabam