Sophie Tucker: Sophie Tucker - Singles
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Joe McGasko on 09/10/2009 at 10:14AM
Ready for the Sophie Tucker revival?
I sure am!
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a nice little article on the "Last of the Red Hot Mamas." Check it out here. The occasion for the article was the release of a new CD on Archeophone Records featuring songs Sophie Tucker recorded for Edison in 1910-11 and Okeh in the early 20s. Despite their low fidelity, the recordings show that this vaudeville pro's salty style was in full-flower from the very beginning of her career. Other media outlets in print and on the Internet have since picked up the Times' lead. It's clear: Sophie Tucker's back!
Why this renewed interest in this forgotten icon of the American stage? Read on, as you listen to her theme song, for some thoughts on the phenomenon that was Sophie Tucker.
These days, we take it for granted that our female pop singers will present themselves as confident, strong-minded women who take no mess. The occasional mopey or twee balladeer aside, the majority of female artists now take this as a given. 'Twas not always so! Back in the teens and twenties of the last century, most female artists came across as one of two extremes: timid, demure songbirds or stately dames delivering solemn artsongs. Unless you were a black blues singer, and therefore operating in a completely different arena, you were going to behave yourself.
Sophie Tucker would have none of this. She was one of a select group of white female singers in the early part of the last century who were unafraid to express emotions that were considered somewhat inappropriate for a pop singer, let alone a female one. She was brassy, direct, and open about her sexuality. A frequent comparison is made between Sophie in music and Mae West in the movies, and the comparison is apt: Both were supremely self-confident women who made no bones about doing what they wanted to do how they wanted to do it.
Sophie's path is all the more surprising given her background. Born Sonia Kalish in an orthodox Jewish household in Russia, she came to America with her family when she was still a baby. Her folks opened a restaurant in Connecticut, and as a teenager, Sonia sang for tips. She soon broke away from her family, though, and after an unsuccessful marriage, she ended up in New York singing and playing piano in rinky-dink theaters under the name Sophie Tucker. She most often appeared in blackface, which was insisted upon by theater managers who felt she was "too fat and ugly" to be successful with audiences (Sophie was 145 lbs. by age 13 and grew from there). As she did for most of her life, Sophie showed 'em who was boss: She "forgot" her make-up one night and was a much bigger hit without it.
As Sophie got popular, her repertoire didn't get watered down much. Most of her material was comic and risque. Among the material featured on her first recordings in 1910 were songs like "That Lovin' Soul Kiss" and "My Husband's in the City." By the time she recorded the number featured here, a song typical of her style, she was a big star. She regularly filled music halls, had hit records ("Some of These Days," also available on the FMA as a free download, was the most popular), and became one of the "biggest" stars of the musical stage.
Interestingly, many of Sophie's biggest songs were written by African-American composers (including "Some of These Days"), and she had Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith on her payroll for a little while. In her way, Sophie opened up the white public's ears to a bluesier, more earthy type of singer. Ethel Waters, Mamie Smith, and other blues singers would have very healthy careers in Sophie's wake--as would innumerable other singers, right down to the present day.
Sophie Tucker would have a long, lively career after her initial burst of popularity. If anything, her material got more ribald later on. She had her own radio show, wrote her autobiography, and continued to perform right up until her death in 1966 at age 82. Although in later years she was considered something of a cartoon, much like the older Mae West, there's no denying that she was a trailblazer in her day, and her records still stand up today.
There's more Sophie on the FMA, so download some more. If you like what you hear, check out the beautifully packaged CD on Archeophone (it's a fine little label doing great compilations of public domain material). Alas, the fine ASV CD of her 20s and 30s material "Last of the Red Hot Mamas" is out of print, but the 2-CD "The Great Sophie Tucker" on Jasmine is also a nice place to hear more.