Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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TUCKER, Sophie

(b Sophie Kalish-Abuza, 13 January 1884, on the move between Russia and Poland; d 9 February 1966 NYC) Singer. She was one of the biggest stars in vaudeville, and outlived the rest. Her father changed his name from Kalish to Abuza when emigrating to USA; she reached there age three and sang at ten in her parents' cafe in Hartford CT. She went to NYC in 1906; plain and plump, she was persuaded to work blackface and became a popular 'coonshouter' (see Ragtime); she ried various names before landing on Sophie Tucker. She had a small role in the Ziegfeld Follies Of 1909, dropping blackface that year. She played Chicago that year and heard 'Some Of These Days' played by its composer, pianist Shelton Brooks (b 4 May 1886, Amesburg, Ontario; d 6 September 1975, Los Angleles; also wrote 'Darktown Strutters' Ball', many others); she recorded it several times, adopting it as her theme (and the title of her autobiography). It sold a million copies in sheet music alone; her recording on Edison was a huge hit '11 and a '26 version with Ted Lewis on Columbia was another, one of over 20 big Tucker hits '10-37.

During the 'jazz' fad of WWI she formed Sophie Tucker and her Five Kings of Syncopation; disbanded '21 and hired Ted Shapiro as her pianist (b 31 October 1899, NYC; d 26 March 1980, Bay Harbor FL; also a successful songwriter, e.g. 'If I Had You'). 'After You've Gone'/'I Ain't Got Nobody' were made with Miff Mole's Molers, including the influential trombonist Mole, Shapiro, Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols and Eddie Lang. Shapiro wrote special Tucker material, often with Jack Yellen (b 6 July 1892, Poland; d 17 April 1991, Concord NY), often extremely blue and unbroadcastable. Tucker made her London debut '22 in revue Round In Fifty with comic George Robey at the Hippodrome; the morals watchdog Lord Chamberlain objected to her references to the Prince of Wales. In '25 Yellen and Lew Pollack (b 16 June 1895, Chicago; d 18 January 1946, Hollywood) wrote 'My Yiddishe Mama' for her; recorded in English on one side, Yiddish on reverse, it was a huge hit '28 (they also wrote 'Cheatin' On Me' recorded by Tucker, later a hit for Jimmie Lunceford; Yellen also co-wrote 'Ain't She Sweet', 'Happy Days Are Here Again', 'Are You From Dixie?', many more). She introduced 'When The Red Red Robin Goes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along' '27 (before Al Jolson) in the revue La Maire's Affairs.

Her film debut as a night club singer in Honky Tonk '29 had her sing 'I Never Want To Get Thin' and 'I'm The Last Of The Red Hot Mamas', the latter her billing for the rest of her life. She was always popular in London at the Kit Kat Club and in music halls; at the first of several Royal Command Performances '34 she greeted George V with 'Hiya, King!' She played the owner of boarding houses in films Broadway Melody of 1938 and Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, both with Judy Garland; she played the wife of a US Ambassador to the Soviet Union (ironic in view of her origins) in the Cole Porter musical Leave It To Me (which also saw the Broadway debuts of Mary Martin, who stole the show with 'My Heart Belongs To Daddy', and Gene Kelly); Tucker sang 'Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love (They Just Like To Kick It Around)'. A film Follow The Boys '44 was followed by Sensations Of 1945, with Cab Calloway, Woody Herman and W.C. Fields. Described as 'a battleship with a voice like 70 trombones', she handed out advice to ladies in half-sung, half-spoken style; her later decades were marked with 'Life Begins At 40', 'I'm Having More Fun Now I'm Fifty', 'I'm Having More Fun Since I'm Sixty', 'I'm Starting All Over Again'. She still worked continuously in clubs and TV in the '50s (especially the Ed Sullivan show); had cameo role in The Joker Is Wild '57, with Frank Sinatra playing Joe E. Lewis; her last Royal Command show was '62, her last performances '63 at NYC's Latin Quarter.

Her contribution to popular music is underrated. She helped establish a carefree vernacular style descended from minstrelsy into vaudeville, and saw it become the mainstream; furthermore, her persona was that of a modern woman who wanted to have a good time and was not contrained by 19th-century orthodoxy. Sophie Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama, 1910-1922 on Archeophone reissued her first 24 recordings in 2009, including ten cylinders made for Edison; the CD package includes a 71-page booklet. It is difficult to find the cylinders in decent condition because her voice was so loud that if the records were played often, they wore out quickly: she overwhelmed Edison's medium, just as in her day she overwhelmed vaudeville.