One of the earliest Jewish popular music stars to entertain general as well as Jewish audiences, Sophie Tucker was born January 13, 1884 somewhere between Russia and Poland as her parents were coming to America. She arrived as an infant in the U.S. in 1884. Her parents, Charlie and Jennie Abuza, (name was changed from Kalish by the father to avoid Russian army)went to Boston and then to Hartford, Connecticut where the family opened a restaurant and rooming house. Sophie loved entertaining and used every opportunity as a young girl to show off, sometimes singing for customers. She dreamed of becoming a star and performed in some amateur groups at the local theater.
After high school she married a young trucker named Louis Tuck, and they had one son, Bert. Louis didn’t make much money and Sophie had to work in her parents’ restaurant to make ends meet. When Louis left her and the baby, Sophie determined to make her way in New York and left her baby with the family. She changed her name to “Tucker” and began her career in Greenwich Village where she earned enough to both live and send some money home to Hartford. While Sophie suffered the condemnation of neighbors back home as being “no good” for leaving her child, and for being in the undesirable ‘popular’ theatre, she was determined to return home a star.
Sophie fell into singing in the ubiquitous vaudeville manner at the turn of the twentieth century– as blackface performer– and one of the first women to do so. Eventually, she began adding Yiddish to some of her act, embracing more and more blues and jazz and finally adding comedy stunts. Sophie Tucker was a large overweight woman and considered by many stage managers as rather unattractive. She turned that perception to a marketable advantage performing ribald, sexy and even vulgar songs. Tucker was a self-described “red-hot mama” and known for songs about women’s sexual desires, and romantic passions. Given her own leanings toward ‘unconventional’ behavior, it is no surprise she is considered by some as an early champion of liberation and independence for women. Her music ridiculed much of the conventional mores of the day. Nevertheless, after about 1916, she moved from vaudeville to evening supper clubs where this type of entertainment was more accepted.
In 1925, her mother, Jennie died and Sophie became despondent. She was unable to work until Lou Pollack and Jack Yellen, two close associates, wrote “My Yiddishe Mama” for her to sing. This sentimental ballad was seen both as a song of grief as well as the triumph of her immigrant, but courageous and powerful mother. This song, along with “Some of These Days” (her “red-hot” routine, first recorded February 24, 1911,for the Edison Company), became her signature song and was beloved by Jews in the US and in Europe wherever Tucker toured.
Sophie Tucker wrote an autobiography published in 1945, Some of These Days, in which she describes her rise to stardom. Her active performing continued to acclaim until the 1960’s. She died on February 9, 1966. An archive of her papers is kept in the Performing Arts division of the New York Public Library. To view an online finding aid and information about this collection, go to the NYPL Digial Library Collections website and scroll down to Sophie Tucker. Tucker (Sophie) Collection, [ca. 1909-ca. 1960]Collection number: JPB 81-7. Music Division. New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
by S. Pinnolis. 03/2000.