Occupation: vaudeville entertainer
Also known as: "Last of the Red Hot Mamas"
Sophie Tucker was born in Russia while her mother was emigrating to America to join her husband, also a Russian Jew. Her birth name was Sophia Kalish, but the family soon took the last name Abuza and moved to Connecticut, where Sophie grew up working in her family's restaurant.
Playing piano to accompany her sister at amateur shows, Sophie Tucker quickly became an audience favorite; they called for "the fat girl." At age 13, she already weighed 145 pounds.
She married Louis Tuck in 1903, and they had a son, Bert, but she divorced Tuck fairly quickly. Leaving Bert with her parents in 1906, she went to New York, changed her name to Tucker, and began singing at amateur shows to support herself.
Sophie Tucker was required to wear blackface by managers who felt that she would not otherwise be accepted, since she was "so big and ugly" as one manager put it. She joined a burlesque show in 1908, and, when she found herself without her makeup or any of her luggage one night, she went on without her blackface, was a hit with the audience, and never wore the blackface again.
Sophie Tucker briefly appeared with the Ziegfield Follies, but her popularity with audiences made her unpopular with the female stars, who refused to go on stage with her.
Sophie Tucker's stage image emphasized her "fat girl" image but also a humorous suggestiveness. She sang songs like "I Don't Want to Be Thin," "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love." She introduced in 1911 the song which would become her trademark: "Some of These Days."
Sophie Tucker added jazz and sentimental ballads to her ragtime repertoire, and, in the 1930s, when American vaudeville was dying, she took to playing England. She made eight movies and appeared on radio and, as it became popular, television.
Sophie Tucker became involved in union organizing with the American Federation of Actors, and was elected president of the organization in 1938. The AFA was eventually absorbed into its rival Actors' Equita as the American Guild of Variety Artists.
With her financial success, she was able to be generous to others, starting the Sophie Tucker foundation in 1945 and endowing in 1955 a theater arts chair at Brandeis University.
She married twice more: Frank Westphal, her pianist, in 1914, divorced in 1919, and Al Lackey, her fan-turned-personal-manager, in 1928, divorced in 1933.
Her fame and popularity lasted more than fifty years; Sophie Tucker never retired, playing the Latin Quarter in New York only months before she died in 1966. Always partly self-parody, the core of her act remained vaudeville: earthy, suggestive songs, whether jazzy or sentimental, taking advantage of her enormous voice.
Sophie Tucker on this site
Sophie Tucker on the Web
Grave of Sophie Tucker
Tucker's final resting place after her 1966 death from lung cancer.
A 1910 recording of Tucker singing "Reuben Rag." RealAudio or .wav formats.
An essay on Tucker's life and career.
A play about Sophie Tucker. Appropriate subtitle: "Red Hot Yiddishe Mama."
Sophie Tucker's Visit to the Barbary Coast - 1911
After the earthquake: Sophie Tucker does vaudeville in San Francisco.
More women's history biographies, by name:
Text copyright 1999-2006 © Jone Johnson Lewis.