Sophie Tucker was a singer and comedienne whose powerful voice and brassy wit delighted audiences for over six decades.
Sophie’s Jewish parents had to escape from Russia in 1886 after her father went AWOL from the Russian military, and she was born on the boat to America. The family settled in Hartford, Connecticut where they ran a kosher boarding house and restaurant. Sophie and her three siblings worked hard in the family business, waking up at 3 am every day to peel and chop vegetables before school. After Sophie got home she waited tables and washed dishes.
From almost the moment of birth, Sophie had a huge and magnetic personality. She was confident, sassy, and uninhibited. Jewish vaudeville stars often stayed at her family’s boarding house and she was fascinated by them and their lives. She always knew she was destined for show business. Her parents absolutely forbade her to join the paskudnyaks (rascals) who stayed at their rooming house. Sophie still found a way to perform: she started singing for their guests as she served them. “I 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.”
Desperate to leave home, she eloped in 1903 with local beer truck driver Louis Tuck. When they returned, her parents organized a traditional Orthodox wedding for them. They had a son, Burt, in 1906, and lived with her family, where she was back to her old role of cooking, cleaning, and serving customers. A frequent guest was Willie Howard, a popular vaudeville comedian and the first to use openly Jewish content in his act. He was impressed by Sophie’s natural talent as an entertainer, and he urged her to move to New York and get into show business. Sophie’s husband Louis did not share her enthusiasm for the stage and after she told him she wanted to move to New York, he took off. Soon, Sophie left Burt with her family and told them she was going to New Haven for a short vacation. Instead, she moved to New York and never returned. She was 19 years old. Burt was raised by Sophie’s family, and Sophie kept in frequent contact with them over the years.
Sophie arrived in New York with a letter of introduction to a famous composer from Willie Howard, but the composer wasn’t impressed by her singing. She was quickly able to find work singing at coffeehouses and saloons. At the German Village, a popular beer garden, she sang 50-100 songs a night for $15 a week. She was such a hit that she was soon making over $150 a week in pay and tips.
Sophie was generous with her money. She sent most of what she made to her family, and lived in a shabby boarding house where the other residents were prostitutes. A nice Jewish girl from Hartford, Sophie had never encountered this type of woman before, but she wasted no time making friends with her neighbors, and started a longtime practice of giving free women-only concerts in bordellos. Sophie shared what she had with the call girls, and kept their money safe so their pimps wouldn’t take it. She later said, “Every one of them supported a family back home, or a child somewhere.”
At the time, $150/week was an impressive salary for a single woman, but it wasn’t enough for Sophie, who wanted to get out of the restaurant business once and for all and make it big in vaudeville. She got her first break in 1907: a chance to audition for impresario Chris Brown’s Amateur Night. After her audition she overheard Brown say, “This one’s so big and ugly, the crowd out front will razz her. Better get some cork and black her up.” He told Sophie that she had passed the audition and would be featured in the show. However, she had to do it in blackface. Sophie was aghast at the suggestion, but Brown and the other producers insisted that her only chance for a career in show business was in blackface. She agreed to do it.
Sophie’s first vaudeville gig was at Tony Pastor’s on the Bowery where she was booked for a pre-show before the matinee. When she took the stage, the theater was empty. She started singing, but as people entered the room they completely ignored her, chatting noisily as they awaited the main event. She suddenly stopped the show cold and began berating the audience for being so rude to her. Sophie had what Jews call chutzpah – audacious self-confidence – and she displayed so much humor and spirit that the audience fell in love with her. Nobody made a peep for the rest of the show, and they demanded three encores.
She was booked onto the New England vaudeville circuit to sing African-American spirituals, and got rave reviews everywhere she went. It wasn’t just her big voice audiences loved, it was also her big personality, her confident swagger and her ability to laugh at herself. Sophie had a sharp wit and a voice that didn’t need a microphone to fill a room.
Audiences adored Sophie’s minstrel act, but she hated performing in blackface. Finally, at a performance in Boston, she’d had enough. She told the producer that her blackface makeup and costume were lost in transit, and before he could argue she marched onstage as herself. She told the shocked 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. And now, Mr. Leader, please play my song.” She never performed in blackface again.
Some of Sophie’s songs were bawdy, filled with innuendo and double entendre, while others were sentimental. Her most popular songs included “Some of These Days” and the Jewish favorite, “My Yiddishe Mama.” Initially Sophie only performed “Yiddishe Mama” in front of mostly Jewish audiences since much of the song was in Yiddish, but she soon found that all audiences loved the song. Even if they didn’t understand all of the words, they could appreciate her heartful singing about her devoted mother.
Sophie did a European tour in the 1920’s which was a huge success. When she arrived in England in 1922, she was greeted by fans with a huge sign reading “Welcome Sophie Tucker, America’s Foremost Jewish Actress!” Looking back at her career later in life, she described that sign as her proudest moment. Sophie performed for King George V and Queen Mary at the London Palladium in 1926. She greeted the monarch with a hearty “Hiya King!” The Daily Express described Sophie as “a big fat blond genius, with a dynamic personality and amazing vitality.” Yiddishe Mama became an international hit, and she was asked to perform the song in Berlin by the Berlin Broadcasting Company in 1931. Two years later, when Hitler came to power in 1933, all copies of the recording were destroyed.
Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch saw Sophie Tucker perform when he was a child. He remembered, “She’d make you laugh like crazy. She would belt. She still could blow the roof off the joint. Then she would do something incredibly schmaltzy, she would turn on a dime and make the audience weep… As soon as you were done crying, she would turn around and do some bawdy song… Everything she said was with the force of a judge making a sentence. She didn’t speak, she made policy statements.”
Throughout her career, Sophie chose songs mostly written by black and Jewish songwriters from Tin Pan Alley, including young Irving Berlin. She was close friends with her fellow vaudeville performer Bill Robinson, known as Bojangles. When Sophie invited Bill to her sister’s wedding in the 1920’s, the doorman wouldn’t let him in, telling him to go through the kitchen. Sophie heard this and immediately pushed the doorman out of the way, closed the front door, and told the guests, “OK everybody goes through the kitchen.”
Despite her act’s raciness, she said “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.” Her songs included, “I May Be Getting Older Every Day (But Younger Every Night),” “I’m The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” “I Ain’t Takin’ Orders From No One,” and “When They Start to Ration my Passion, It’s Gonna Be Tough on Me.” She often made fun of her size, calling herself a “perfect 48.”
She kept improving her act, and after a decade as a solo performer, she created a back-up band of black jazz musicians called the “Kings of Syncopation.” They recorded several albums together, all of which were hits, and toured the country playing to enthusiastic crowds. In Chicago they played 15 weeks at the Palace and then at every other theater in town. Crooner Tony Bennett called Sophie “the most underrated jazz singer that ever lived.”
After a few years as the self-styled “Queen of Jazz,” Sophie re-imagined herself again, as a cabaret performer, accompanied by piano player Ted Shapiro. He became part of her act as they developed a snappy banter. Over the years she did some film, radio and TV work but what she loved most was interacting with a live audience.
Sophie married two more times, but neither husband liked being “Mr. Sophie Tucker” and both marriages failed. She said, “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.” Throughout her life, Sophie was known for her generosity, and she gave away much of what she made to a variety of philanthropic causes. She established the Sophie Tucker Foundation in the early 1950’s, and endowed hospitals, synagogues, actors guilds, and several charitable organizations in Israel.
Sophie continued performing until the end of her life, even after getting lung cancer. While undergoing treatment she was still doing two shows a night. Sophie died at age 80 in 1966, during a months-long theater engagement. As she lay on her death bed, she asked the nurse to “bring me my chiffon hanky, bring me my wig” and she did bits from her act until she took her last breath. Thousands of mourners attended her funeral at Emanuel Synagogue Cemetery in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Known as the “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” Sophie’s act inspired later female performers such as Mae West and Bette Midler.
For entertaining audiences around the world for sixty years and giving generously to others, we honor Sophie Tucker as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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