Sophie Tucker

Sophie Tucker was one of the most popular singers and comedians in America in the early 20th century. She was born as Sophie Kalish in Russiain 1884. Her parents immigrated to the United States when she was three months old, and her father changed the family name to “Abuza” because he feared being caught for deserting the Russia military.

The family first lived in Hartford, Connecticut and ran a kosher diner and roominghouse that catered to many show business people. Sophie was intrigued by the theater from a young age, and began singing for the customers she waited on. But her parents opposed a career for women, and wanted her goal to be marriage and a family.

At age 19, Sophie eloped with a local beer card driver, Louis Tuck. Sophie had one son, Burt, but soon after separated from her first husband. She subsequently changed her last name to “Tucker” and moved to New York City to begin a singing career.

She began by singing in cafés, but soon got her first break in a burlesque show. Because theater managers said she was “too fat and ugly,” her producers first insisted that she perform as a blackfaced minstral with a Southern accent. After two years, she was able to perform without disguise to audiences in vaudeville houses and music halls who loved her husky voice and brassy, outspoken comedy routines. She took her trade seriously, and hired some of the best teachers and singers to give her lessons. She also hired a pianist and songwriter, Ted Shapiro, as her accompanist and music director. He became part of her stage act throughout her career and wrote many songs for her.

Tucker’s trademark song, “Some of these Days,” was introduced in 1911. Her most famous song, sung in Yiddush and English, was “My Yiddishe Momme,” written by Jack Yellen in 1925. It was a sensational hit everytime Tucker sang it. Several years after Hitler came into power, the Reich banned the sale of Tucker’s recordings of “My Yiddishe Momme” and ordered existing copies destroyed.

Tucker described herself as a “King-sized Lollabrigida.” She was billed as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” because her hearty sexual appetite was a frequent subject of her songs. Her risqué, humorous songs challenged the current societal stereotypes and prejudices about women’s sexuality, age, and size. She was the precursor to strong women entertainers such as Mae West, Fanny Brice, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, and Bette Midler. As vaudeville gave way to cinema, Tucker had parts in both Broadway hits and several films. She was active in efforts to unionize professional actors, and was the first president of the American Federation of Actors in 1938.

Sophie Tucker was not as successful in her marriages as in her career. She married twice more, but all three of her marriages ended in divorce. She felt that her fame and economic independence doomed her marriages. Men in her generation were attracted to strong, financially successful women, but wanted to dominate them once they were married and were emotionally challenged in a relationship with a woman who earned significantly more money than they did. Sophie is quoted as saying: “From birth to age eighteen, a girl needs good parents. From eighteen to thirty-five, she needs good looks. From thirty-five to fifty-five, she needs a good personality. From fifty-five on, she needs good cash.”

Sophie Tucker embraced the Jewish principle of Tzedaka. She established the Sophie Tucker Foundation, donating money and energy to large variety of causes. She contributed to the Jewish Theatrical Guild, the Negro Actors Guild, synagogues, and hospitals. Her foundation endowed a chair at Brandeis University. She visited Israel many times and built two youth centers there. She funded the Sophie Tucker Forest near the Beit Shemesh amphitheater and donated time and money to numerous hospitals and homes for the aged in Israel. Tucker raised over four million dollars for servicemen during World War I and later donated to charity all the proceeds from her fiftieth-anniversary record album and her autobiography.

Her fame and popularity lasted more than fifty years. She never retired, still performing a few weeks before she died of lung cancer at age 82, in 1966. Three thousand mourners attended her funeral. Sophie Tucker’s legacy is not only from her role as a innovative and popular entertainer, but also through her generous contributions to charitable causes.

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