Entertainer Sophie Tucker was, among women entertainers, sort of like Al Jolson and Ted Lewis rolled into one: a pioneering singer of blues, popular, Yiddish, and sentimental songs. Her career was so early that, even in the 1960s when she appeared regularly on Ed Sullivan's show, she was well past her prime. However, there was a time when Sophie Tucker was at the center of the universe in American entertainment, and this time, Sophie Tucker's time, is finally captured on Archeophone's release Sophie Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama.
Sophie Tucker (1884-1964) was a Russian-Jewish refugee, like Al Jolson, whose vaudeville career, also like Jolson's, began as a blackface singer. She made her debut on the vaudeville stage in 1906, and by 1910 she was so popular she was able to charge Thomas Edison $100 per cylinder for 10 records when he asked her to record for his company. He paid it, and she used the money to buy a house for her ailing mother. Tucker's 1911 cylinder of the song African-American composer Shelton Brooks wrote for her, "Some of These Days," is a priceless artifact of American entertainment and has been reissued numerous times, but some of the other cylinders she recorded became so rare that they've never been heard in modern times. Archeophone has managed to gather all 10 of her Edison cylinders together, along with the vertical-cut Aeolian-Vocalions Tucker made of her jazz group, the Five Kings of Syncopation, in 1918-19. Tucker was the first woman to lead her own jazz band, but these records disappeared from sight quickly and none were even known to exist until very recently. After running a short-lived Sophie Tucker Record Company ca. 1920, she signed with Okeh and made her last truly representative recordings.
By the time electricity connected with recording technology, Sophie Tucker was already past her prime both vocally and in her relevance as an entertainer. She starred in the early Vitaphone talkie Honky Tonk (1929) of which the sound discs exist, but no picture has ever been located; she is rumored to have hated the film so much that she paid to have all of the negatives and prints destroyed. Over the next 35 years she lived the life of an entertainment legend, writing a tell-all autobiography and making numerous recordings, all of which attest to her personality, but few to none provide much insight into what made her singing so important.
Sophie Tucker was to regular vaudeville what Ma Rainey was to black vaudeville: the first female singer to drop the polite niceties expected of a lady, show a lot of flesh and sing badly as had Eva Tanguay, and to belt out her songs in a bluesy, brassy way -- a singing style still inherently feminine, but giving quarter to no man. Moreover, some of her songs, such as "My Husband's in the City," are racy enough to provide a mild shock even a hundred years after they were recorded. In this way, Tucker foreshadowed great Broadway entertainers like Belle Baker and risquÃ© cafÃ© society artists like Belle Barth and Nan Blakstone. Sophie Tucker provided a blueprint for many of the popular female singers that followed her, and helped to define the very notion of "show biz" and Archeophone has done well to roll back a century of obscurity in order to recover the lost treasure of this central figure in American entertainment.
Sophie Tucker -- Some of These Days (recorded 1910)
Sophie Tucker -- My Husband's in the City (recorded 1910)
Sophie Tucker & Her Five Kings of Syncopation -- Everybody Shimmies Now (recorded 1919)
Sophie Tucker -- Complainin' (recorded 1922)