A Century Later, Sophie Tucker is Still Red Hot

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Has any pop star had as many nicknames as Sophie Tucker? In a career that spanned seven decades, Tucker was variously billed as “The Empress of Songs,” “The Syncopated Cyclone” and “Our Lady Nicotine”; as “Iron Lungs,” “Muscle Dancer” and “Vaudeville’s Pet”; as “The Ginger Girl,” “The Grizzly Bear Girl” and “The Girl Who Never Disappoints.” During her early years as a vaudeville headliner, when rags were the rage, she was “The Tetrazzini of Ragtime.” When jazz took over, she became “The Queen of Jazzaration.”

Even her “real” name was a nickname. Tucker, who came to the United States from Russia as an infant, was born Sonya Kalish and raised as Sonya Abuza. (The family name was changed at Ellis Island.) She settled on the stage name Sophie Tucker after flirtations with various others, including Ethel Tucker and Sophia Taylor.

She was best known, though, by the tag line that stuck with her from her vaudeville heyday to her death in 1966 at 82: “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” In her final years Tucker was still being introduced by that title in nightclubs and on television, and still doing a version of her old routine: shout-singing songs full of double entendres while shaking a body nearly as broad as it was tall. It was a nostalgia act; Tucker’s circa-1910 brand of bawdiness was quaint by then.

But a new anthology of her earliest recordings shows that Tucker, at the peak of her stardom, was anything but old-fashioned. “Sophie Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama, 1910-1922” (Archeophone) features Tucker’s first 24 recordings, digitally transferred from the original wax cylinders and 78 r.p.m. discs. (The CD package includes a 71-page booklet, with extensive liner notes by the filmmakers Susan and Lloyd Ecker, who are working on a Tucker documentary.) The record is stupendous fun: rags, blues and ballads, packed with jokes and innuendo, sung by Tucker in her patented swaggering, blaring style. And it’s an important historical document, which argues for a bigger place for Tucker in the popular-music canon — as a proto-feminist and taboo-shattering sensualist, and as a herald of pop musical modernity.

“This CD will remind people what an innovator Sophie Tucker was,” said Meagan Hennessey, an owner of Archeophone Records, a label devoted to early sound recordings. “She wasn’t just a kitschy old woman in big hats.” ...

... The CD includes the 10 cylinder records Tucker cut for the Edison National Phonograph Company in 1910 and 1911. They are rare collectibles; in the 1960s Tucker confessed to fans that she didn’t own any of them. Archeophone (archeophone.com) spent seven years compiling the complete Tucker cylinders, drawing on private collections as well as the Edison National Historic Site archives and the recorded sound collection of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The rarity of the records is in part a result of Tucker’s powerhouse vocals, which nearly overwhelmed the capacities of the primitive wax cylinder medium. “She sings so loud, it was difficult to find cylinders in good enough shape, that have reasonable sound,” said Richard Martin, Ms. Hennessey’s husband and Archeophone’s co-owner...

... Tucker was in other ways an archetypal pop star of her day. She was a bootstrapping Jewish immigrant who cut her teeth singing for tips at her parents’ kosher restaurant in Hartford. In 1906 she moved to New York, where she rose through the saloon and variety theater circuit to earn roles in the Ziegfeld Follies and, eventually, marquee status in big-time vaudeville. Like her male counterpart, the cantor’s son turned pop star Al Jolson, she changed her name and graduated to all-American celebrity, but few could fail to detect the ethnic tinge in her singing, a link she made explicit with her huge schmaltz-swathed 1925 hit ballad, “My Yiddishe Mama.”...

...Historians and rock critics have long enshrined blues queens like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (both are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees) as clarion voices of musical modernity. “Origins of the Red Hot Mama” suggests that it may be time we looked to another group of women, Tucker and her vaudeville fellow travelers, who made American pop sound more American: looser, more vernacular, more swinging.

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