82 (passed away Feb. 9th, 1966)
Jan. 13th, 1884
Sophie Tucker's Main TV Roles
Main Movie Roles1944 - Follow the Boys
1937 - Broadway Melody of 1938
Guest TV Roles[none found]
What becomes a legend most? For the beloved Russian-born entertainer Sophie Tucker, it was most definitely the live stage. The stage was her home. She fed off a live audience and it's what made her the sensation she was. Seeing her up close and personal was to get the very best of her. Movies and TV were too restrictive to capture the true essence of Sophie Tucker. For well over five decades, she performed everywhere -- Broadway, vaudeville, cabaret, clubs and burlesque.
This gutsy, irrepressible "Jazz Age Hot Mamma" was born Sophie Kalish in Russia in 1884 just as her family was about to emigrate to the United States. They left when she was a mere three months old, settling in Hartford, Connecticut. She started performing as a youngster in her parent's small restaurant, occasionally singing and playing the piano for tips. Marrying in her teens to a ne'er-do-well, she was forced to continue at the restaurant to support a family of three (including baby boy Bert). Within a short time, however, she divorced, left her child with her parents, and headed to nearby New York with visions of stardom. Changing her name to the more suitable marquee moniker of "Sophie Tucker" (her ex-husband's name was Louis Tuck), she proceeded to take the town by storm.
Sophie started out in amateur shows. Not a beauty by any stretch, she was grossly overweight and quickly found that self parody and racy comedy, punctuated by her jazzy musical style, would become the backbone of her popularity. Playing at various dives, she earned a minor break in 1906 after earning a singing/piano-playing gig on the vaudeville circuit. Disguised in blackface, she played ragtime music. Her humor, of course, came at the expense of her weight but, with such ditties as "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love," she had audiences eating out of the palm of her hand. They were laughing with her, not at her. One night her makeup kit was stolen and she was forced to stand in front of the curtain and entertain without it. The audience went crazy for her and the rest is history. She never wore blackface again.
Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. caught her act and started her off in his Follies shows in 1909. She proved to be such a scene-stealer, however, that other top female headliners refused to be on the same billing with her. She went on instead to headline her own shows. A cross between the sex-minded Mae West and the homely, self-effacing Fanny Brice, Sophie relied on aggressive sexual innuendo to win over her crowds. She had a faux confidence about her sexuality, dressing up with opulent, come-hither costumes. She gave advice to both women and married men in such songs as "You've Got to Make It Legal, Mr. Siegel." Sophie played The Palace -- vaudeville's "A" No. 1 showcase. She made huge hits out of such naughty novelty songs as "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip van Winkle When Rip Van Winkle Went Away?" These songs stayed with her act for decades. Sophie was also a pioneer recording artist, recording her famous signature song "Some of These Days" for the Edison Company on February 24, 1911. She re-recorded the song in 1926. Other big hits would include "After You've Gone," "Cheatin' On Me" and "My Yiddishe Mama."
Her blockbuster success in America aggressively spread into Europe. Upon returning from her first trip to Berlin in 1925, however, things had changed. Vaudeville was dying and she started looking into radio and films as a viable means of livelihood. Radio, yes, but films were a major disappointment. She was too bawdy and larger-than-life for the small lens. Besides, she really couldn't act. Nevertheless, in 1929, Sophie made her film debut as an night club singer in Honky Tonk (1929) in which she sang her ever-popular "Some of These Days" in addition to "I Never Want to Get Thin" and "I'm the Last of the Red Hot Mamas." She went on to share the spotlight with Judy Garland (I) in Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937), in which she played a non-singing boarding house owner. She would showcase her signature tune "Some of These Days" twice more in movies, in Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) and Follow the Boys (1944).
In the 1930s Tucker brought a wave of burlesque-styled nostalgia into her show, now billing herself as "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas." She had a hit Broadway musical comedy with "Leave It to Me" in 1938-1939 which co-starred the comedy team of William Gaxton and Victor Moore (I), along with a debuting Mary Martin (I). With her financial success, she started the Sophie Tucker foundation in 1945.
In the 1950s and early 1960s the woman, hailed as "The First Lady of Show Business," made frequent TV appearances on the popular variety and talk shows of the day. She remained a favorite both here and abroad, especially in London music halls where she once greeted King George with an earthy "Hiya, King!" On April 13, 1963, a Broadway musical entitled "Sophie" opened with Libi Staiger in the title role, based on Sophie's early life (until 1922). It closed after eight performances.
Sophie went on doing her thing until the very end, playing the Latin Quarter only months before her death. She had developed lung cancer and died at age 82 of lung and kidney complications in 1966. She was interred at Emanuel Cemetery in Wethersfield, Connecticut, her home state. For Sophie Tucker, a true legend, it was either her way or the highway, and the audiences embraced her for it.
- Referred to jokingly as "our favorite American group" by 'Paul McCartney' (qv), during a 1963 televised performance by 'The Beatles' (qv).
- She beat 'Marlene Dietrich' (qv) to the punch by creating a national scandal when she introduced pants to the U.S.
- She married and divorced three times. She married first husband Louis Tuck while in her hometown as a teen; her second husband, Frank Westphal, was her pianist at the time; and third husband Al Lackey was a fan who turned into her business manager. It led to her promise in the song "I'm Living Alone": "There isn't going to be a fourth Mr. Ex / and I'll be darned if I'm paying anymore alimony checks / I'm living alone and I like it!"
- According to Michael Rogin's book, "Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants and the Hollywood Melting Pot," Sophie Tucker, originally billed as the "World Renowned Coon Shouter," subsequently was given the sobriquet "Queen of Jazz."
- Another ribald entertainer, 'Bette Midler' (qv), was greatly influenced by Sophie and shamelessly borrowed many of her more risqué jokes for her own highly successful nightclub acts and big forum concerts in the 1970s.
- Increasingly known for her philanthropy, Tucker's favorite charities targeted youth centers, a high school wing in Israel, the Theater Arts program at Brandeis University, a maternity clinic at Denver's General Rose Memorial Hospital, and Hartford's Emmanuel Synagogue. In 1955 Tucker raised almost one million dollars in a benefit performance on behalf of the Hebrew Old People's Home.
- Durable singer and occasional actress whose career spanned more than six decades. A formidable lady both personally and as a singer, posessed of a clear alto voice and saucy wit, her theme song and biggest hit was "Some of These Days," but she also introduced such standards as "M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means the World to Me)" and "My Yiddishe Momma."
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