She was the self-proclaimed `last of the red-hot mamas,’ and in that song bragged: “They’ve all cooled down but me! I can warm the cold ones and give the old ones back their flaming youth.” Ragtime ruled in Sophie Tucker’s youth. She became a star in vaudeville before World War I, yet remained a presence in American entertainment into the television era. When she recorded her `red-hot mama’ song in 1929, she was already 42 and had been recording since 1910. That her career spanned nearly 60 years was an act of sheer will by a lady born with greasepaint in her veins. Asked in 1965 (the year before her death) how she managed to still pull out all the stops onstage, she replied: “I keep breathing.”
Tucker’s extraordinary self confidence (and knack for self promotion) gave her access to every 20th century medium—records, radio, film, television—but she was first and foremost a stage performer. The fact that she came from vaudeville and did little to update her act, no matter what medium she appeared in, makes Tucker a surprising choice for a bio-doc film: nearly a half century since her last bow, does anyone remember her? Evidently enough do for a film entitled The Outrageous Sophie Tucker not only to be produced but enjoy week-long runs in theaters in a few cities this past summer.
The film is a labor of love by husband-wife team Susan and Lloyd Ecker, who have a Sophie Tucker franchise going (learn more at their website www.sophietucker.com). They got Tony Bennett to praise Tucker as an underrated pioneering jazz singer, and evidence of that appeared in a prior CD project, Sophie Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama, 1910-1922. It was released on the Archeophone label, noted for restoring and reissuing historically significant music from the dawn of sound recordings. It includes Tucker’s first recording of her future theme song, “Some of These Days,” in 1911. That performance hints at blues vocal phrasing (no blues had yet been recorded) within a stops-out vaudeville context. Tucker had a huge voice and knew how to sell a song with it. No wonder her star rose fast.
Her earliest recordings offer many delights, from the unlikely (“Please Don’t Take My Harem Away” describes what the Sultan hopes to save from his lost Ottoman Empire) to the Tucker-tailored “She Knows It,” which finds her bragging: “Why, from the moment of my birth I could have anything on earth…When I was 15 years old I was knocking them cold, and I know it!” Tucker was a larger- than-life figure born to perform. Her bold confidence still comes through her recordings; the Archeophone set also offers visuals of vintage promotional material and sheet music from Tucker’s own scrapbooks.