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The Last of the Red Hot Mamas

A new film about Sophie Tucker is in theaters, and reason enough revisit the vaudevillian’s suggestive, sex-positive, hip-slinging songs

Marjorie Ingall
July 29, 2015
Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images
Sophie Tucker in the U.K., September 4, 1928. Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images
Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images
Sophie Tucker in the U.K., September 4, 1928. Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

A new movie, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, purports to introduce audiences to the bawdy, brassy, ballsy singer who was once a household name. Today, she’s nearly forgotten—or remembered merely as an influence on The Divine Bette Midler—but oh, is she worth knowing. Sadly, the movie isn’t a great introduction. It needs a little less conversation, a little more action please (to quote another larger-than-life, sequin-loving singer whose weight was much scrutinized). It’s a fragmented, talking-head-filled balagan. And there’s not enough singing!

This is a shondeh. As Tablet contributor Jody Rosen points out in the New York Times: “Tucker’s vocals were a triumph of not just power but, in a raucous way, finesse. She slurs some vocal lines and punches out others hard against the beat. She attacks the chorus of “Please Don’t Take My Harem Away” like a deranged opera diva and delivers “My Husband’s in the City” in slyly syncopated speech, a kind of turn-of-the-century rapping. It’s a strikingly modern sound.”

The documentary’s producers, a married pair of retired dot-com millionaires who’ve also self-published Tucker’s “fictional memoir,” and who hope to produce more books, a Broadway musical, and a movie or TV show, are the film’s primary expert interviewees. Charitably, they seem like enthusiastic fans. (We didn’t need to see them breaking down in tears about Tucker’s death or shot in dramatic profile, in uber-theatrical stark lighting.) They’ve uncovered lots of great vintage photos, but the attempt to liven them up by amateurishly animating them is…uncomfortable. As one critic noted, “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker plays like a re-enactment of a Wikipedia page.”

But hey, it’s a great jumping-off-point for learning more about Tucker! She was born in 1884 to Orthodox Jewish Ukrainian immigrants who ran a kosher diner in Hartford, Connecticut. As a teenager, Sophie, who always wanted to be in vaudeville, stood in a corner of the restaurant and sang between bouts of dishwashing and serving. In her autobiography, she wrote: “At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

Tucker married at 19 and had a baby, but domesticity was not her bag. By 1907, she’d divorced her husband and dumped her son with her family and run off to New York City to be a star. She became a “coon shouter”—the term for a loud, white woman performing in blackface—but stopped darkening her face with burnt cork as soon as she could: Perhaps, as the documentary insists, she was nobly anti-racist and horrified by what she had to do to get ahead. Or maybe she simply wanted to show her own face and win fame doing her own material on her own terms. Regardless, she soon combined the over-the-top, accent-inflected comedy of vaudeville with the slippery-slidey sexuality of jazz. As Rosen noted, “It was shtick, but also a radical break with the musical past—a rejection of the Europhile light-opera aesthetics that had long predominated in American popular song, emphasizing purity of intonation, clear diction and squarely hit notes.”

Tucker quickly became a huge star, and stayed that way for sixty years. Among her hits was 1928’s “My Yiddishe Momme” (later covered by Tom Jones, among many others!). Its sentimentality has aged less well than her more raucous work. But Hitler banned it, and you know you have arrived when you have been banned by Hitler.

A master of self-promotion, glad-handing and marketing, Tucker palled around with both J. Edgar Hoover (the movie repeats as gospel the apocryphal story that he asked her for one of her glamorous dresses and she shut him down), and Al Capone, who sent her a telegram before an opening night at one of his clubs, saying “They better like you tonight – or else!” She was once arrested on obscenity charges for performing a sexy song and dance called “The Angle Worm Wiggle.” Tucker would set up a table outside theaters after her shows to sell her book in an era before author signings were common; she refused to make change, telling buyers that she’d give the extra money to Israel. (To be fair, she did support Israeli charities, as well as actors’ guilds and unions, hospitals and synagogues. At her funeral, the hearse drivers’ union called off a picket to transport her body.)

Tucker married three times, badly, and then had long-term relationships (sexual? who knows!) with two different women of color. When Josephine Baker—newly returned to the United States from France—received bomb threats in the South, Tucker, who was at the peak of her stardom, offered to introduce Baker to audiences herself. Tucker had a troubled relationship with her son, who wound up getting syphilis from a chorus girl, and she may have had a gambling problem.

She led a big life.

And she had a big body. Sometimes she played it for humor (as in “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl,” later covered by Jim Croce, in which she croons, “Nobody loves a fat girl / but oh how a fat girl can love / Nobody seems to want me / I’m just a truck upon the highway of love”), but more often she depicted herself as a confident, voracious, red-hot and unconventionally foxy babe. In “I Don’t Want To Get Thin” she asks, “Why should I, when I’m all right as I am? Those slender-waisted mamas, they make me laugh / My goodness, men like to see a little fore and aft.” In performance, her longtime accompanist, Ted Shapiro, bantered with her, saying, “Miss Tucker, you shouldn’t say ‘fat!’ In all the best places they say one is ‘stout!’” Tucker murmured back, “In all the best places I’m fat.” You can see her influence on Mae West, who followed her hot-big-girl path.

Do yourself a favor and check out a sampling of her suggestive, sex-positive, hip-slinging work (thank you, YouTube!). The clips below—with a smattering of the most amusing lyrics—are a good place to start. Alas, the sound isn’t always great, and like both Judy and Liza, both of whom covered her songs, Tucker’s voice in her later years (she died in 1966) isn’t quite what it was when she was younger. Still, she was always red-hot.

“He Hadn’t Up till Yesterday

When I get my arms around him
And I hug with all my might
And if he’s never called for his mother
Then I guess he will tonight…
I’m gonna show him in the parlor
Why a girl turns out the light
I won’t waste any time on talking
I’ll start right in on sight
And if he’s never forgotten his Bible
You can bet he will tonight

“The Lady is a Tramp” (cover by Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga and the cast of Glee)

She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She likes the theatre
But never comes late
She never bothers with people she hates
That’s why the lady is a tramp!

“Life Begins at 40

A novice gulps his brandy down
He doesn’t understand
Observe a connoisseur
The way he holds it in his hand.
How he strokes the glass, fondles it, warms it as he should
Smacks his lips, slowly sips: Awwwww, you taste good.

“After You’ve Gone” (later sung by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Rufus Wainwright and Fiona Apple)

After you’ve gone and left me crying
After you’ve gone, there’s no denying
You’ll feel blue; you’ll feel sad
You’ll miss the bestest pal you’ve ever had
There’ll come a time, now don’t forget it
There’ll come a time when you’ll regret it
Someday when you grow lonely
Your heart will break like mine — you’ll want me only

“Red Hot Mama”

I confess that I possess the sweetest charms in town
And unless I miss my guess the boys all follow me ’round
I could make a music master drop his fiddle
Make a bald-headed man part his hair in the middle
‘Cause I’m a red hot mama, red hot mama, but I’ll have to turn my damper down!

“You Can’t Deep Freeze A Red Hot Mama”

You can deep freeze your vegetables
Your sweets and meats
Anything at all that anybody eats
But you can’t deep freeze a red hot mama because you can’t get her temperature down!
No Kelvinator can ever refrigerate ‘er
Or cool the kisses on her lips
A Frigidaire’s a fizzle if it tries to take the sizzle
Out of her round, firm, and well-packed hips.

“If Your Kisses Can’t Hold the Man You Love”

If you find your husband is cheating, go out and do the same, old dear
…Go out and make whoopee! Men? You’ll get ‘em by the straw
Neglected wives shouldn’t worry — that’s what God made sailors for.
Don’t cry for him or chase him! Just go out and replace him
With some Tom, Dick or Jack
Because if your kisses can’t hold the man you love, then your tears won’t bring him back.

“Oh, You Have No Idea”

Has he lips all the girls adore? Does he know what he’s got ‘em for?
Oh, you have no conception.
…Has he got what the girls all crave? When he’s with ‘em, does he behave?
Come to me for information.
He claims he’s traveled quite a lot in far distant lands
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but he sure has travelin’ hands.

“You Can’t Sew A Button on a Heart

Cleopatra and Madame DuBarry
Never held a man with a pot and pan
My advice to you is when you marry
Forget the dish on the shelf — be a tasty dish yourself.
And you just concentrate upon your lovin’
And you’ll find that’s an art
‘Cause you can’t heat thrills in an oven
And you can’t sew a button on a heart.

I Ain’t Takin’ Orders from No One

Tell that party with the curly hair
Who winked at me before
That I just got rid of one
And I don’t want any more.
I do what I like
Whenever I like
I like what I love
And love when I like
But I’m not taking orders from no one.

“I Know That My Baby is Cheatin’ on Me

If he wants to meander I’ll let him run loose
What’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose
I’m bettin’ I’m gettin’ more pettin’ than him, that’s true
…I know he’s cute and attractive
And I know he knows it too
Well I may not be selective
But he’ll have to be more active
To beat what this mama can do.

“Living Alone and I Like It”

I’m a one-ticket gal
Free as the breeze
I go where I like
I do as I please
When I lock up I got all the keys
I’m living alone and I like it.
There’s no papa, sober or stewed
To come home late to shake me and nudge me and wake me
To get up and make whoopee when I’m not in the mood
If I wanna have some fun if I get bothered and hot
I pull one of those young tall-dark-and-handsomes I’ve got
So it costs me a twenty or a fifty — so what! I’m living alone and I like it!

“You’ve Gotta See Mama Every Night (Or You Can’t See Mama at All)” (cover by Liza Minnelli)

I don’t care for that kind of a man
Who loves his mama on the installment plan
You gotta see mama every night
Or you never see mama at all.
I don’t care for that kind of sheik
Who does that sheiking once a week
You gotta see mama every night
Or you won’t see mama at all.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.