Fifty years ago today we lost the biggest entertainer in the world, Sonya Kalish Abuza, a.k.a., Sophie Tucker. A veteran of the stage, screen, and phonograph, her sixty-year career began during the era of Edison’s wax cylinders, spanned the era of the microgroove LP, and concluded at the time the Beatles were beginning their “mature” phase. By the time she got sick in late 1965, Tucker was seen by the youth as a relic of their parents’ generation, but her appearances on Ed Sullivan and the omnipresence of her Mercury LPs and her autobiography, Some of These Days, meant she was never out of sight and was a force to be reckoned with one way or another.
The BBC has put together an appreciation that you can read and listen to here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35505532. We were interviewed for the piece and are happy to report that presenter William Kremer did a nice job. One key theme he emphasized was race relations. The two incidents repeated here are her promotion of songwriter Shelton Brooks and her defense of Bill Robinson, the dancer known as Bojangles. The story about Brooks goes this way: Sophie’s maid was friends with Brooks and sought to get him an audience with her employer. One night she sneaked him into Sophie’s dressing room, where he presented her with his new song, “Some of These Days,” which went on to become her signature piece. That must have been about 1910. The other story involves a party Sophie threw for her sister in the ’20s at a fancy hall in New York: when the doorman insisted Robinson could only enter through the back door, Tucker declared the front door to be closed and marched everyone through the back door.
The first story is probably all myth, as Brooks’ song had already been making waves by the time Sophie got to it, but the second one is probably true. The point is and was that Tucker championed the careers of her black peers and not in the condescending “many of my friends are black” sort of way. She was deeply interested in African-American art and culture—and she wanted it for herself as well. Perhaps she looked out for her black colleagues because she, too, knew what it was like to be put down for her heritage. As a Jewish woman, Tucker knew that kind of bigotry, yet she never tried to hide her ethnic identity.
Maybe the most interesting legend is the one dealing with the institution of blackface. Tucker began her career around 1906 “corking up” for her performances, allegedly because she was told by promoters she was too fat and ugly and had to cover herself. She always said she hated it and found the earliest opportunity to conveniently “forget” to bring her valise to a performance, thereby liberating herself from the hated makeup. The reasons for Tucker’s transition are not entirely clear, and it could be a combination of considerations. Did she consider it demeaning to blacks? Did she find it personally demeaning? Did it hide her true personality? Was it too outdated and “old-timey”? Tucker may have been forward thinking on race, but she was also a shrewd delineator of current trends. That kept her consistently relevant and is a big part of why people today still know who she is.
So tonight raise your glass to the great Sophie Tucker, indeed “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas”!