[Dixielandjazz] Sophie Tuicker

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Aug 30 08:35:31 PDT 2009

August 30, 2009 - NY TIMES - By Jody Rosen
A Century Later, She’s Still Red Hot

HAS any pop star had as many nicknames as Sophie Tucker? In a career  
that spanned seven decades, Tucker was variously billed as “The  
Empress of Songs,” “The Syncopated Cyclone” and “Our Lady Nicotine”;  
as “Iron Lungs,” “Muscle Dancer” and “Vaudeville’s Pet”; as “The  
Ginger Girl,” “The Grizzly Bear Girl” and “The Girl Who Never  
Disappoints.” During her early years as a vaudeville headliner, when  
rags were the rage, she was “The Tetrazzini of Ragtime.” When jazz  
took over, she became “The Queen of Jazzaration.”

Even her “real” name was a nickname. Tucker, who came to the United  
States from Russia as an infant, was born Sonya Kalish and raised as  
Sonya Abuza. (The family name was changed at Ellis Island.) She  
settled on the stage name Sophie Tucker after flirtations with various  
others, including Ethel Tucker and Sophia Taylor.

She was best known, though, by the tag line that stuck with her from  
her vaudeville heyday to her death in 1966 at 82: “The Last of the Red  
Hot Mamas.” In her final years Tucker was still being introduced by  
that title in nightclubs and on television, and still doing a version  
of her old routine: shout-singing songs full of double entendres while  
shaking a body nearly as broad as it was tall. It was a nostalgia act;  
Tucker’s circa-1910 brand of bawdiness was quaint by then.

But a new anthology of her earliest recordings shows that Tucker, at  
the peak of her stardom, was anything but old-fashioned. “Sophie  
Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama, 1910-1922” (Archeophone) features  
Tucker’s first 24 recordings, digitally transferred from the original  
wax cylinders and 78 r.p.m. discs. (The CD package includes a 71-page  
booklet, with extensive liner notes by the filmmakers Susan and Lloyd  
Ecker, who are working on a Tucker documentary.) The record is  
stupendous fun: rags, blues and ballads, packed with jokes and  
innuendo, sung by Tucker in her patented swaggering, blaring style.  
And it’s an important historical document, which argues for a bigger  
place for Tucker in the popular-music canon — as a proto-feminist and  
taboo-shattering sensualist, and as a herald of pop musical modernity.

“This CD will remind people what an innovator Sophie Tucker was,” said  
Meagan Hennessey, an owner of Archeophone Records, a label devoted to  
early sound recordings. “She wasn’t just a kitschy old woman in big  

To the extent that Tucker is remembered today, it is as that big- 
hatted, big-bellied oldie but-goody. She maintained a busy career into  
her late 70s, appearing on radio (and hosting her own broadcast,  
“Sophie Tucker and Her Show”), acting in movie musicals and continuing  
to make records well into the rock ’n’ roll era. But “Origins of the  
Red Hot Mama” takes listeners back to Tucker’s prime, reviving a voice  
heard by few people in the last eight decades.

The CD includes the 10 cylinder records Tucker cut for the Edison  
National Phonograph Company in 1910 and 1911. They are rare  
collectibles; in the 1960s Tucker confessed to fans that she didn’t  
own any of them. Archeophone (archeophone.com) spent seven years  
compiling the complete Tucker cylinders, drawing on private  
collections as well as the Edison National Historic Site archives and  
the recorded sound collection of the University of California, Santa  

The rarity of the records is in part a result of Tucker’s powerhouse  
vocals, which nearly overwhelmed the capacities of the primitive wax  
cylinder medium. “She sings so loud, it was difficult to find  
cylinders in good enough shape, that have reasonable sound,” said  
Richard Martin, Ms. Hennessey’s husband and Archeophone’s co-owner.

The cylinders have been expertly digitized, but they are old, and they  
sound it, with decades’ worth of accumulated hiss and crackle. Yet in  
other respects Tucker’s turn-of-the-20th-century music sounds at home  
in the 21st.

The songs are awash in stories of lust and infidelity. In the jaunty  
ragtime number “That Lovin’ Soul Kiss” (1911) Tucker commands her beau  
to keep kissing her — although the “kiss” here sounds awfully  
euphemistic. “Sip the honey divine, for a long time,” she drawls.  
“One, two, and three/Now, longer/Four, five, and six/Still longer,  
honey/Seven, eight, nine/Oh, oh, babe.”

In “My Husband’s in the City” (1910), a reply to Irving Berlin’s 1909  
hit “My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)” Tucker makes  
plain that she is having plenty of fun on her summer vacation while  
her husband minds the shop in town. “Knock Wood” (1911) is an opéra  
bouffe about hapless cuckolds and sexually ravenous women.

These songs are artifacts of a Progressive Era pop culture that waged  
a cheery revolt against Victorianism. At the front lines were  
vaudeville starlets like Tucker and the madcap Eva Tanguay, who  
flouted 19th-century ideals of demure femininity with suggestive song  
lyrics, ragtime rhythms and spectacular comical-carnal performance  

“Audiences in this period were emerging outside of the Victorian  
context of ‘true womanhood’ and domesticity,” said Eric Weisbard, an  
assistant professor of American studies at the University of Alabama  
who specializes in popular music. “These audiences were open to a  
different kind of presentation, to women singers who embodied a new  
kind of public sexuality and public pleasure.”

Tucker was in other ways an archetypal pop star of her day. She was a  
bootstrapping Jewish immigrant who cut her teeth singing for tips at  
her parents’ kosher restaurant in Hartford. In 1906 she moved to New  
York, where she rose through the saloon and variety theater circuit to  
earn roles in the Ziegfeld Follies and, eventually, marquee status in  
big-time vaudeville. Like her male counterpart, the cantor’s son  
turned pop star Al Jolson, she changed her name and graduated to all- 
American celebrity, but few could fail to detect the ethnic tinge in  
her singing, a link she made explicit with her huge schmaltz-swathed  
1925 hit ballad, “My Yiddishe Mama.”

And then there was her girth. The first two decades of the century  
were a golden age of zaftig songstresses, and like other stars of the  
day — May Irwin, Stella Mayhew, Trixie Friganza — Tucker played her  
heft for ribald laughs. In “Won’t You Be a Dear, Dear Daddy to a ’Itta  
Bitta Doll,” the far-from-’itta-bitta Tucker promises (threatens?) to  
sit on her love object’s lap. “Everybody Shimmies Now,” which appears  
on “Origins of the Red Hot Mama” in a rambunctious 1919 recording, was  
a staple of Tucker’s live act for years, a showpiece for her ample  
assets. “Shimmy dancin’ can’t be beat,” she sings over honking brass  
and screeching strings. “You move everything except your feet.”

The bumptious, oversexed woman Tucker portrays in these songs has  
roots in the broad caricatures of blackface minstrelsy. Tucker knew  
that material well: she began her career as a “coon shouter,”  
slathering on burnt cork to sing songs full of watermelon chomping and  
other racist grotesqueries. The “Origins of the Red Hot Mama” CD  
package includes a rare photo from about 1907 of Tucker in blackface,  
on one bended knee, arms outstretched — a pose not unlike the one  
Jolson struck when performing his blackface anthem, “My Mammy.” Part  
of Tucker’s routine was a teasing racial reveal. As the Eckers write  
in the “Origins of the Red Hot Mama” liner notes, “She came up with  
the idea of removing her black wig and gloves while taking her bows,  
revealing her natural blond hair and white hands.”

Around 1909, Tucker stopped “blacking up” altogether, a decision she  
later depicted as a liberation. But traces of minstrelsy survived in  
her music. “Good Morning Judge” (1911), a burlesque about a  
kleptomaniac, finds Tucker exclaiming “lawd-a-mercy” in stereotypical  
dialect. In “Pick Me Up and Lay Me Down in Dear Old Dixieland” (1922),  
a plantation-nostalgia song in the Stephen Foster mold, Tucker croons,  
“Keep those darkies singing till I get back/To that ivy-covered  
ramshackle shack.”

But what is striking about Tucker’s vocals, even on her earliest  
cylinder recordings, is how she transmutes the rowdy comedy and raised  
decibels of the shouting tradition into a thrilling, idiosyncratic  
personal style. Her vocal tone is inimitable: husky, rumbling and  
very, very loud — the voice of a variety-stage veteran determined to  
peel paint off the cheap seats in the third balcony. (Tucker worried  
that her voice sounded like a foghorn on her cylinder records. She was  
right about the foghorn, but wrong to worry.) The emotional force of  
her full-throated style is on display in the original 1911 version of  
her signature number, “Some of These Days” — a moan of pleasure and  

Tucker’s vocals were a triumph of not just power but, in a raucous  
way, finesse. She slurs some vocal lines and punches out others hard  
against the beat. She attacks the chorus of “Please Don’t Take My  
Harem Away” like a deranged opera diva and delivers “My Husband’s in  
the City” in slyly syncopated speech, a kind of turn-of-the-century  
rapping. It’s a strikingly modern sound.

There is a larger lesson here for pop-music historians. Tucker, like  
other vaudeville comedians of her day, aimed hard for the funny bone,  
creating comic vocal effects and singing in a variety of exaggerated  
accents. (In addition to blackface turns, she performed Jewish dialect  
and country-bumpkin “rube” tunes.) It was shtick, but also a radical  
break with the musical past — a rejection of the Europhile light-opera  
aesthetics that had long predominated in American popular song,  
emphasizing purity of intonation, clear diction and squarely hit notes.

Historians and rock critics have long enshrined blues queens like Ma  
Rainey and Bessie Smith (both are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  
inductees) as clarion voices of musical modernity. “Origins of the Red  
Hot Mama” suggests that it may be time we looked to another group of  
women, Tucker and her vaudeville fellow travelers, who made American  
pop sound more American: looser, more vernacular, more swinging.

A case in point is “She Knows It,” a half-shouted, half-spoken rant in  
which Tucker boasts about her singing (“I’ve got a voice that’s as  
sweet as the robin’s tweet-tweet — and I know it”), her beauty (“My  
ruby lips are so red, they knock all the roses dead”), and her  
(fictional) amorous adventures with J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller  
and the Prince of Wales: “He said, ‘Sophie, be my sweetheart, you can  
have anything’/I said, ‘You come back and talk to me when you’re the  
king.’ ”

The song was recorded 87 years ago. But how different is it, really,  
from the hits that dominate radio today, in which haughty, charismatic  
divas issue demands and disses at top volume? Who could listen to “She  
Knows It” and doubt that a straight line can be drawn from Sophie to  
Beyoncé? Tucker was — distinctively, definitively — a red hot mama.  
But not, by a long shot, the last one.

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