Sophie Tucker is a sort of hybrid of the Hebrew appeal of Belle Baker and the sassy, ribald quality of African American song, honed during years as a “coon shooter” and later as the self proclaimed “Queen of Jazz”. Far from being the LAST of the Red Hot Mamas, she was more like the FIRST of them.
She was the essence of what made vaudeville and subsequent American show business great. She was not the best singer in the world, but she had “it”, a great personality to sell it, a great sense of humor, a knack for picking out appropriate character songs for herself, so that you felt that you knew her. You got a strong sense of who she was. A hearty and honest presence, she suggested everything that was good and bad about life itself. A Tucker set, sung in her trademark husky voice, would evoke laughter, tears and a healthy, Rabelaisian contemplation of sex. Eddie Cantor once said Sophie Tucker would cry at a card trick. Emotions were her stock in trade.
She was born en route from Russia, making it an open question whether she was an immigrant or a first generation American. Her actual name was Kalish, but her father, who’d gone A.W.O.L. from the Russian army, took the name of an Italian soldier named Charles Abuza. Sophie’d already had a name change and she wasn’t even born yet. The family lived eight years in Boston, then moved to Hartford, where they set up Abuza’s Home Restaurant. The inexpensive but good food attracted a lot of traveling types such as salesmen, and SHOW PEOPLE. When in town, folks like Willie and Eugene Howard and Jacob Adler ate there. H’m…that can’t have put any notions in Sophie’s head, could it?
If the glamorous and romantic presence of real live show people weren’t incentive enough to flee her surroundings and seek a life on the stage, her surroundings were incentive enough. She wasn’t starving or poor, and her family gave her plenty of love…but they also gave her plenty of work. Sophie, her two brothers and her sister were all slaves of the restaurant. Sophie was up at 3 a.m. every day, chopping and peeling vegetables before school. At night she was bussing and waiting tables and washing dishes. At school, she used to fall asleep at her desk.
However, at school and at work, everybody loved her “personality”. From kidhood, she was big, fat, sassy and above all lovable. The teachers said she had the “strongest voice in school”. She had few inhibitions, and at the drop of a hat, would sing for the patrons in the restaurant. With her small allowance, she would go to see shows at the local Poli’s or the Hartford Opera House when she could afford it. Inspired by the acts she saw there, her restaurant singing got more serious and she started doing amateur shows.
But before she even got out of the gate on the race to stardom she made a mistake that would have been fatal to any less determined aspirant. She fell for the good looks of a good-for-nothing neighborhood boy named Louis Tuck. Immediately she graduated high school, she eloped with him and got pregnant. Tuck was a bum who earned very little money and what little he earned he spent on flashy clothes. The couple lived at her family’s house and Sophie was back working in the restaurant. The clock was really ticking on her dreams. Not many people make it out from under such a predicament and get to see their name in lights. Meanwhile, Willie Howard was in the restaurant telling her she really ought to go in show business. Exasperated, she gave Tuck an ultimatum—shape up or ship out. He hit the bricks, leaving her even worse off.
It was the fall of 1906 and Sophie was about to commit a most unnatural act. Telling her folks she was going to take a few days vacation in New Haven (that should have been the tip off), she abandoned her son to be raised by her family and ran off to New York. Not that it’s an excuse (and only in a book on show business could one find an excuse for child abandonment in pursuit of fame and fortune), but she was a mere slip (okay, ox) of nineteen at the time.
As brassy as she was, the move took a lot of pluck, even if it was an evil sort of pluck right out of the right out of the pages of Neitszche. She carried with her a modest purse and the names and address of people to look up given to her by Willie Howard, and that was it. (It’s all Willy Howard’s fault!). She saw some of Howard’s friends, including popular songwriter Harry Von Tilzer, but nothing came of it. In an effort to save money, she immediately set about doing what she knew best: singing for her supper in restaurants. Because she was on the lam, on her first hiring she gave an alias: Sophie Tuck…er.
She started working at the German Village, where sang 50-100 songs a night for $15 a week. She was so popular that her salary quickly shot up to ten times that. She immediately and dutifully sent back a sizable portion to her family every for the support not only of her son, but for the rest of her family. She did this all her life, gradually redeeming herself in their eyes (she later bought a house for her parents and put her brother through law school), but hardly making a dent in the scorn of their Hartford neighbors. While $150 a week was very good money to be making in the aughts, Sophie wanted to break into show business. To her, she was still working in a restaurant. She auditioned at Chris Brown’s Amateur Night at 125th and 3rd. Because she was so chubby, the folks running the show decided to put her in blackface**(a rather skewed logic). Sophie sang three songs; the audience demanded three more.
Such are the vagaries of fate. Thus was this most Jewish of nice, Jewish girls made a “coon shouter”, or, sometimes “a manipulator of coon melodies”. She started working the small time at $15-25 a week, rather a comedown from the sums she was pulling down at the restaurant – but with considerably greater hope of advancement. She worked the small time circuits for a year, during which time she established a very important friendship with Marcus Loew, king of the small time impresarios. She performed frequently at his theatre at 116 and Lennox (which he co-owned with future film producers Zukor and Schenck).
All the while she was honing and improving the act. Wardrobe was an important part of her professional tool kit from the get-go. “In show business,” she once said, “clothes matter.” It would only become moreso later when she dropped blackface and started to put on even more weight.
For her first Big Time gig at Tony Pastor’s, she was booked into a 1:30 pre-show matinee. There was no one in the house when she started her act. Audience started to file in while she was performing, making all sorts of noise and generally ignoring her. It is a story that is fairly common in vaudeville. Such incidents were usually either fatal to careers or remembered bitterly by successful performers as early set backs. Tucker is the only person on record as having turned such a situation around. What she did was to stop the show cold and comically berate the audience in (blackface) character. The audience loved it and were rapt with attention for the rest of her act, even demanding encores. She was a huge hit and moved up instantly to the big (prime time) show.
This is Tucker’s modus operandi. Time and time again we find her overcoming the natural tension of performing by dealing with what is really going on in the moment, without artifice, and thereby turning the tables on a bad situation. Booked for a show with Manchester and Hill’s burlesque wheel (where she met life long friend Fanny Brice), she was so bad in rehearsal that dismissal seemed imminent. However, she managed to bring down the house on her opening line “Henry!” by shouting it so loud that it rattled the roofbeams. For a show called Louisiana Lou she got a similar reaction by making her entrance with her pants “accidentally” unbuttoned. For a date in Boston, her minstrel get-up got put on the wrong train. She simply scrounged up a presentable gown and did the act au natural – Caucasian.
Spotted by William Morris (who became her agent for many years) she slayed the audience with her half hour set at his American Music Hall at 42nd street and 8th Ave.
Critics called her “the Mary Garden of Ragtime”, a point of reference that is completely meaningless today (as if I had to tell you).
Tucker’s first double entendre song was the old whorehouse number “There’s Company in the Parlor, Girls, Come On Down.” As Tucker herself observed, there’s precious few girl singers who can get a double entendre song over. Any conventionally beautiful woman just seems like a tramp if she sings a bawdy song—at least that was the conventional wisdom of her time. In the wake of Madonna, of course, tramps are de rigeur. In Tucker’s day though, when, a fairly good looking woman (like Mae West) sang a sexy number she became a pariah. A fat woman (Tucker topped out at 192 lbs) was not threatening, so Sophie’s sexy songs were written off as humor. Such numbers were to become a staple of her repertoire.
In the early teens she started introducing songs to the vaudeville audience that would become classics, including “Some of These Days” her theme song, written by Shelton Brooks, who also wrote “Darktown Strutters Ball”, another hit for her (that’s the song that starts “Come and meet me at the station in a taxi, honey”). She even had a couple of novelty numbers about Rip Van Winkle: “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?”and “Where Was Rip Van Winkle When His Wife Went Away?”
Booked at New York’s Colonial Theatre, she turned a potentially disastrous predicament to her advantage once again. She got wind that the Colonial had a band of rowdies that would always make trouble in the balcony, heckling new acts and so forth. She hung around outside before the show until she identified a young man she figured must be the ringleader of the clique. She then approached him and very frankly asked him to and his gang to be particularly kind to her as this was her Colonial debut. Don’t ask me how – perhaps he was flattered by the obeisance – but her stratagem worked.
In 1913 she achieved a consummation devoutly to be wished when she headlined at Poli’s Theatre in Hartford, the very same theatre she used to attend when still a kid working at her parents restaurant. From a pariah, she had grown into “the Pride of Hartford”. As satisfying as that must have been to her, she still had another fifty years of success left. She was now at the top of the big time, her stomping ground Hammerstein’s and the Keith Circuit. In 1914 she played the brand new Palace for the first time.
She married a chap named Frank Westphal (her accompanist), but the relationship quickly foundered on the shoals of her success. He was not fond of being Mr. Sophie Tucker, or of earning half of what Sophie earned. Because he loved cars, she bought him his own garage, which was immediately given the unfortunate name “The Sophie Tucker Garage.” Frank wasted no time shacking up with other females while Sophie was on the road. The marriage with Sophie broke up, which was unfortunate for Frank—I’m fairly certain none of the other girls were able to give him garages.
By 1916 Sophie had become bored with her act, so she gave it a major goose by forming a back-up band, which she called the “Kings of Syncopation”. Calling herself “the Queen of Jazz”, she started emulating many of the African American acts she had seen in night clubs. By now she had long since lost the blackface. She recorded record albums with this combo and got rave reviews all over the country. In Chicago they were so popular, they played 15 weeks at the Palace, then played all the other theatres in town, then returned to the Palace. Unfortunately the boys started getting a little cocky and requested pay a little more in line with her own. They were summarily canned.
She changed her act yet again, dropping the jazz sound for a more intimate cabaret sound anchored by the brilliant piano player Ted Shapiro:
Vaudeville passed from the scene, but Sophie kept working, mostly in night clubs and British music hall, where she was much beloved. Though she made the occasional film, radio and tv appearances, she never had a regular series or became a movie star. Night clubs were her favorite type of venue anyway: she liked above all else to grapple with a rowdy, unruly audience and win them over. The freedom in a night club to curse and otherwise truly be herself helped her to do so. Tucker kept trouping, incredibly, until she passed away in 1966, at age 82, leaving many months of upcoming bookings unfulfilled.
And she lives on. A 2002 show at New York’s York Theatre called Red Hot Mama featuring cabaret artist Sharon McKnight brought Sophie’s set back to life for the first time in over thirty years.
To find out more about history of vaudeville, including great performers like Sophie Tucker, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.