Vaudeville's Red Hot Mama


Sophie Tucker, in her younger days (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If you've listened to our brief history of vaudeville podcast, you know that there's a follow-up on the way -- notable vaudevillians! All chosen by our Twitter followers and Facebook fans, no less. But one of the notables we didn't get to cover in depth, and a favorite of mine, is singer Sophie Tucker, most famously known as "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas."

Red hot AND HOW. You won't find a bio of Ms. Tucker that doesn't include the words "bawdy" or "brassy" (I know -- I tried). She didn't shy away from sex, preferring innuendo and the double entendre in her songs, interspersed with jokes. It was one reason people loved her -- her sensual effect was a part of her warmth. She was loud, she was funny, and you couldn't ignore her if you tried. Tucker took up a lot of space, both with her booming voice and her physical presence -- many biographical resources mention Tucker's sizeable person, and it was something she celebrated. In the days of opera singers being fired from productions for being too fat, it's refreshing to hear her sing of her shimmy. She commissioned a song called "I Don't Want to Get Thin," lest you doubt her feelings on the subject. Good for you, Sophie Tucker.

Born Sophie Kalish and later called Sophie Abuza, our vocal star was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. Rather than appease her parents and marry a nice man from Hartford, she started singing at her parents' diner. Later, she made her way to the vaudeville stage, where she was judged by one man to be too fat and too ugly to appear in anything but blackface. She gained fame for her performance but eventually abandoned it to appear as the woman she was. And the crowd loved her.

The two songs she's best known for are "Some of These Days" and "My Yiddishe Momme." They couldn't be more different. "Some of These Days," written by black jazz composer Shelton Brooks, was considered her theme song, and she had exclusive rights to it. Of the song, she wrote, "I've turned it inside out, singing it every way imaginable, as a dramatic song, as a novelty number, as a sentimental ballad, and always audiences have loved it and asked for it."

A sample of the lyrics:

Some of these days you'll miss me, honey Some of these days you're gonna be so lonely You'll miss my huggin'; you're gonna miss my kissin' You're gonna miss me, honey, when I'm far away I feel so lonely, for you only 'cause you know, honey, you've always had your way And when you leave me you know it's gonna grieve me Gonna miss your big, fat mamma, your mamma some of these days

"My Yiddishe Momme," on the other hand, is very sentimental. Tucker started singing it after her own mother died, and audiences loved it -- except, perhaps, for a French audience in the 1930s. As the Jewish Women's Archive relates it, she was booed when she started singing in Yiddish. Recordings of the song were later banned by the Third Reich -- a nod to just how powerful Sophie Tucker's rendition was.

Luckily for you, an anthology of her music is available, a box set called "Origins of the Red Hot Mama."

And as for her love life? The eminently quotable great leaves us with this thought on what it meant to be a working woman:

"Once you start carrying your own suitcase, paying your own bills, running your own show, you've done something to yourself that makes you one of those women men like to call 'a pal' and 'a good sport,' the kind of woman they tell their troubles to. But you've cut yourself off from the orchids and the diamond bracelets, except those you buy yourself."