Sophie Tucker

Sophie Tucker
"From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash."
- Sophie Tucker

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1884

Died: 1966

Inducted: 1999

Town: Hartford

When Sophie Tucker, called “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” died in 1966, the Hartford Courant wrote: “Miss Tucker was more than a Red-Hot Mama; she had a mama's love for people, and her memorial to her hard-working parents was always to remember other people in need.” Throughout her five-decade career, Sophie Tucker was not only a star of stage and screen, but also a dedicated philanthropist, leaving behind a rich legacy of music, television, and film along with one of care, concern and community support.

Sophie Kalish was born on January 13, 1886 in Tulchyn, Ukraine. The Kalish family immigrated to Hartford, Conn., when Sophie was just three months old and changed its name to Abuza. Once settled in Hartford, her parents opened a kosher restaurant on Front Street and started building a life for their daughter. They intended her to marry, have children and succeed in domestic matters. When the young Sophie showed a penchant for show business, her parents did not approve but allowed her to perform at the family’s restaurant for tips from patrons. In 1903, 17-year-old Sophie Abuza married Louis Tuck. The marriage was short-lived but the Tucks produced a son, Bert. Discontent with her husband’s lack of ambition, Sophie Tuck ended the relationship and left her family to pursue a career in show business in New York City. In an attempt to create a new stage persona for herself, she adapted her married name and became Sophie Tucker.

In New York, Tucker began singing in small cafes. When she first took to the vaudeville stage in 1907, she was forced to perform wearing blackface, a common practice in amateur shows at the time. Whether it was because she was considered overweight or because she was Jewish, her managers did not believe that Tucker could win over her audience by appearing on stage as herself. However, one night after her make-up was stolen, she turned skeptics into believers, charming her audience and transforming herself into a true star. She soon became a headliner in vaudeville and burlesque shows. As her popularity grew, Tucker shared top billing with many of the 20th century's most famous stars including Will Rogers, Jack Benny and Fanny Brice. She was invited to perform in London, Paris and other European cities.

In 1911, Tucker recorded "Some of These Days," the song that would become her trademark. She was soon touring with her own band and, in 1921 hired pianist Ted Shapiro as her long-term musical director. Shapiro wrote a series of hits for her including "The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else" and "Red-Hot Mama." In 1925, Tucker sang “My Yiddishe Mama” for the first time. The song later became a Jewish anthem in Europe after it was banned by Adolf Hitler. In 1929, Tucker made her movie debut in Honky Talk. In 1934, she made her first Royal Command Performance and was the only American performer to appear before three generations of British monarchs. She later received critical acclaim for her performances in Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937) and Broadway Melody (1938), performing alongside Judy Garland in both features. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, in addition to performing, Tucker was instrumental in unionizing professional actors. She was elected president of the American Federation of Actors in 1938. In 1945, Tucker published her autobiography, Some Of These Days. She continued to work in clubs and on television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including several stints on the Ed Sullivan Show.

During her lengthy career, Tucker became increasingly known for her philanthropy, as well as her independent personality. Her philanthropic interests varied widely, from youth centers and a high school wing in Israel to a theater arts program at Brandeis University, a maternity clinic at Denver's General Rose Memorial Hospital, and Hartford's Emmanuel Synagogue. Tucker was married three times: first to Louis Tuck; then to Frank Westphal, one of her pianists; and finally to Al Lackey, her business manager. She remained close to her family, returning to Hartford each year to celebrate the High Holidays. In 1955, Tucker raised almost $1 million in a benefit performance on behalf of the Hebrew Old People's Home.

Sophie Tucker died in 1966 from lung and kidney disease. She is buried in Emmanuel Synagogue Cemetery in Wethersfield, Conn. Among those who consider Tucker’s comic style a major influence include Mae West, Joan Rivers, Rosanne Barr and Bette Midler.

 


During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War