Thursday, January 13, 2011

In Memoriam: Sophie Tucker

Rather than being stung by the criticism of theatre owners and vaudeville bookers, who frequently told her she was 'too fat and ugly' to appear onstage (exactly the kind of charming sentiment which is the downfall, rather than the uplift, of showbiz) Sophie Tucker persisted anyway, and soon enough won hearts and minds with a style of ribald self-deprecation which never lapsed into self-pity - probably because it was born of defiance!

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1884, Tucker was renowned for her ability to sing the blues in the style of such black divas as Bessie Smith, Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, and Ethel Waters; although in her early career she was compelled to wear blackface, she found the practice distasteful and when she fought to wipe her face clean, she was one of the first to do so. After the theft of her makeup case prior to a 1909 performance, she was so hailed by audiences that she was never asked to wear it again, blazing a trail that would eventually see the disgraceful practice of minstrelsy abolished altogether.

Not content to merely mimic black performers - as was Kate Smith, for instance - Tucker took training from them, and was rewarded with their respect for having done so. Rising above her status as a so-called 'coon shouter' - which is such a lovely term* - Tucker also mined her Jewish heritage for material; one of her most famous songs was called My Yiddish Momme, a sentimental tribute to motherhood which routinely got everyone in the audience right in the heart.

Despite being 'fat and ugly' Tucker was known as 'The Last of the Red Hot Mamas', and not just because her jokes could scorch wallpaper at a dozen paces. One of her racier burlesque songs was called Bounce Your Boobies; given the copious and earthy sexuality on display in her act, I have no doubt that she bounced her boobies offstage as much or more than she did on.

Tucker's experiences in the early days of show business galvanized her politically in more ways than one; she was instrumental in the creation of unions to protect performers and was even elected President of the American Federation of Actors in 1938.

Sophie Tucker died in 1966, just in time for a certain frizzy-haired upstart from Hawai'i - herself a study in contradictions - to take up Tucker's considerable mantle...


share on: facebook

No comments: