Sophie Tucker was loud, lavish, brash, brassy, sexy, sassy, and just a little bit naughty. With limitless energy, she traveled constantly for many years, giving several shows a night. She picked songs she knew her audiences would love, both tear-jerking ballads and comic “hot” songs—she laughed uproariously, and wept copiously on stage as in life. Known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” she thoroughly enjoyed her slightly risque reputation.
Tucker always boasted that she was born on the road, not between theaters, but between countries. Her parents, Russian Jews, fled their country in the late nineteenth century for the better life America had to offer. The family lived first in Boston, and then when Tucker was eight, moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to open the restaurant where she was to get her first taste of show business. Because the restaurant offered good food at low prices, it was often filled with the entertainers playing the local vaudeville house. Tucker, an energetic extrovert even as a child, picked up their songs quickly, and found she could also pick up some spare change when she sang them for the diners. She soon realized that singing for the customers was easier than cooking for them, and decided go into show business herself.
All throughout her school years, Tucker helped in the restaurant—cooking, cleaning, and serving. She would rise early before school to prepare food, and work after school washing dishes until very late. She witnessed her mother working even harder, and she wanted to create an easier life for herself and her mother. Soon after finishing high school, Sophie Tucker married Louis Tuck. It quickly became evident that while Louis Tuck was a good man, he was not a hard worker, and was not going to give his wife the life she wanted. After the birth of their first child, Albert, he left them. Tucker continued working for the restaurant until she had a small savings of her own, and then, leaving Albert in the loving care of her sister and mother, left Hartford for the lights of Broadway.
Breaking into show business is hard work, but Sophie Tucker, as she began calling herself, was used to that. For months, she tramped around the city of New York trying to get someone to give her a chance. When money became low, she ended up singing for her supper at small cafes. Eventually, she was able to get a job singing at a beer hall. Perseverance led to a performance at an amateur hour, which led to an agent, which led to vaudeville. By 1906, Tucker was traveling the New England Vaudeville circuit.
For the Record…
Born Sophie Kalish, January 13, 1884, in Russia; died February 9,1966, in New York. Married Louis Tuck(d. 1914), 1900; son Albert Tuck, b. 1901; married Frank Westphal, 1914, divorced 1917; married Al Lackey 1930, divorced 1933.
Debuted at the Village Cafe, New York City, 1906; began singing in Vaudeville, 1906. Sang in Ziegfeld Follies, Atlantic City, 1909; toured with Frank Westphal, 1914-1916; toured with The Kings of Syncopation, 1916-1919; sang in the Winter Garden Theater, 1919 ; toured England, 1922 and 1925; command performance for King and Queen of England, 1934. Musicals include: Mary Mary, 1911; Louisiana Lou, 1912; Hello Alexander, 1919; Follow a Star, 1930; Leave It to Me, 1938. Movies include: Honky Tonk, 1929; Gay Love, 1934; Broadway Melody of 1938, 1937; Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, 1937; Follow the Boys, 1944; Sensations of 1945, 1944; Atlantic City, 1944.
Awards: Election to the Friars Club, 1950; Gold Seal Commendation from the Mayor of San Francisco, 1953; Citation of Merit from the Mayor of New York City, 1953; Gold Heart Award, London Variety Club, 1959.
Because Tucker was somewhat hefty, and was not considered to be one of the beauties of her day, her manager and producers had her sing in black face as a comic singer. One day, after several years performing in black face, her trunks were not delivered in time for a performance, and she was forced to sing in every day clothes and no make up. The audience still loved her, so she dropped the black face altogether.
She began adding Yiddish songs to her act, new comic songs, and even sentimental songs and blues. Risque songs were always popular. Variety was one key to her success. “I would start off with a lively rag, then would come a ballad, followed by a comedy song, and a novelty number,” she wrote in her autobiography, Some of These Days.”And finally, the hot song. In this way, I left the stage with the audience laughing their heads off. For encores, I always had popular songs, new ones.” By continually adding new songs and new costumes, she kept her act fresh. “Playing two months or more in one city meant new songs all the time,” she continued. “If people paid their dimes to see and hear Sophie Tucker, they didn’t want to hear the same songs over and over or see the same clothes.” Her costumes were as lavish as possible. One of her last costumes consisted of a 24-carat-gold cloth gown, a white mink coat, and a diamond headdress. She boasted that each new act cost $50,000—$25,000 each for the new songs and the gowns.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, Sophie Tucker was a headliner, receiving top billing everywhere she played. She earned the highest salaries, and played the best theaters. She even played a command performance for the King and Queen of England in 1934.
While her style and attitude remained constant, her act changed through the years. For several years, Tucker’s second husband, Frank Westphal, accompanied her on piano, but their act and marriage broke apart, because she earned more money and received more attention than he did. She then traveled with a small combo, the Five Kings of Syncopation. When that act broke up, she hired pianist Ted Shapiro, who stayed with her for over 40 years. She also worked with the songwriter Jack Yellen, whom she kept on salary and commission; he wrote many songs just for her. From his song “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” she took her most famous nickname.
After two decades in show business, vaudeville, the business Tucker knew best, began to die, done in by the movies—especially talkies—and the depression of the 1930s. Tucker began singing in revues, such as “Gay Paree” and musicals, such as “Leave it to Me.” She made a few movies, including “Broadway Melody of 1938,” and sang on radio, but none of these fit her style well, and she had trouble finding the right venue, until she turned to nightclubs. Once she started singing in clubs, she was back on top. The intimate atmosphere and the immediate communication between artist and audience was just right for her type of show. She could say whatever she wanted to the audience, and sing their favorite songs.
While Tucker demanded, and received, top salaries, she did it as much for others as herself. With her very first paycheck, she began sending money home to help support her family. In 1910, as soon as her increasing income became large enough, she bought her parents a new home, and provided enough money for them to retire. When she began earning more money than both she and her family needed, she gave to charities, a practice she maintained all of her life.
Through the years, her efforts supported many different groups including the Jewish Theatrical Guild, the Negro Actors guild, the Catholic Actors Guild, the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital, the Motion Picture Relief Fund, and Save the Children Foundation.
In 1945, with the publication of her autobiography, she set up the Sophie Tucker Foundation. All of the profits for her book went into the fund, as well as all of the revenues from her Golden Jubilee album, Sophie Tucker —50 Glorious Years, which came out in 1953. In 1955, in addition to its other donations, the Sophie Tucker Foundation endowed a chair in theater arts at Brandies University. The New York Times reported, shortly after her death, that during the six decades of her career, she donated more than four million dollars to charity. Tucker also liked to sing benefits. She sang without fee at innumerable orphanages and prisons, and was famous for performing for charity at the drop of a hat. “Benefits? I’ve never refused one,” she once said, as quoted in Sophie: The Sophie Tucker Story.
Whether she was singing to royalty in England, or prisoners in California, spending her money on se-quined gowns worth thousands, or the Jewish Actors Temple, everything Sophie Tucker did was on a grand scale—she was larger than life. “She was a giant,” her agent Able L. Lastfogel told the New York Times after she died. “She was unique. She was a star who stayed important, through her lifetime. Her work and effort and her willingness to help those who needed help will be remembered in years to come.”
Sophie Tucker—50 Glorious Years, Mercury, 1953.
Miff Mole’s Molers, Jazz Makers, 1971.
Follow a Star, Academy Sound and Vision, 1985.
Is Everybody Happy, Halcyon, 1986.
Sophie Tucker: Jazz Age Hot Mama, Take Two Records, 1992.
Freedland, Michael, Sophie: The Sophie Tucker Story, Woburn Press, 1978.
Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, The Faber Companion to 20th-century Popular Music, Faber and Faber, 1990.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, edited by Wiley H. Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, Macmillan Publishing, Ltd.
Simon, George, Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
Tucker, Sophie, Some of These Days; The Autobiography of Sophie Tucker, Doubleday, 1945.
Life, February 18, 1966.
Newsweek, October 5, 1953; February 21, 1966.
New York Times, February 10, 1966.
New York Times Magazine, September 27, 1953.