Sophie Tucker Anniversary

Sophie Tucker's portrait in the April 1911 Edison Phonograph Monthly (Archeophone Records Collection)

Sophie Tucker’s portrait in the April 1911 Edison Phonograph Monthly (Archeophone Records Collection)

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 catalogue entry for the original recording  of "Some of these Days" in the April 1911 Edison Phonograph Monthly (Archeophone Records Collection)

The catalogue entry for the original recording of “Some of these Days” in the April 1911 Edison Phonograph Monthly (Archeophone Records Collection)

Continue reading

Advertisements

Sophie Tucker and The Blue Amberol that Wasn’t

You may have noticed that three different CDs of ours include the all-time classic, “Some of These Days,” by Sophie Tucker, recorded in 1911 for Edison. It first appeared on our Stomp and Swerve CD in 2003, and then again on Origins of the Red Hot Mama in 2009, and yet again on 1911: “Up, Up a Little Bit Higher,” which came out last year. There’s no questioning its significance in the history of American song. But how popular was it really at the time?

The American Quartet, with Billy Murray in the lead, recorded the Shelton Brooks song first: December 27, 1910, for Victor 16834. Elise Stevenson and the Columbia Quartette made it for Columbia A1029 on May 29, 1911. Sophie Tucker’s version for Edison was recorded around February-March 1911 and released in June 1911 on four-minute wax Amberol 691. The great thing about these original renditions is that you get the verses along with the chorus; when the song became popular again in the 1920s, nobody recorded the verses. Sophie’s is definitely the best of the bunch, and pop researcher Joel Whitburn suggests that it was a very popular record.

Here’s the second half of the song (from our 1911 yearbook):

 

Try to find a copy of the original cylinder today. When it does show up at auction, it goes for big money (we’re talking close to a thousand bucks), just like all of Tucker’s cylinders. One imperfect sign of a hit record is the persistence of copies today, and “Some of These Days” fails this test. We got to thinking about this the other day because we still are not clear why Sophie stopped making records between 1911 and late 1918. It’s true that most stage stars did not have recording careers—either they didn’t like recording or had schedules that never allowed for it—but Sophie’s activities in the studio both early on and in after-years shows that she wasn’t afraid of the acoustic horn or the electric microphone. Stars like Nora Bayes and Al Jolson, on the other hand, kept one foot firmly on the stage and the other inside the studio. As a result we have a trove of their recordings today.

 Edison Amberol lid for

Edison Amberol lid for “Some of These Days” (Courtesy Edison National Historic Site)

A number of artists appeared on the sheet music to

A number of artists appeared on the sheet music to “Some of These Days,” including Sophie’s rival Blossom Seeley. Seeley did not record the song.  (Courtesy Adam Swanson)

Tucker began making records at a very tenuous time in the Edison business narrative. She debuted in early 1910 with selections on the old two-minute wax format, which was slowly being phased out in favor of the longer-playing wax Amberols, which had been introduced in 1908. Moreover, the wax compound Edison used for these late two-minute records was especially brittle and subject to degradation. Add that up and you see these are difficult records to find—especially in playable condition.

Continue reading