Sophie Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama, 1910-1922. Archeophone Records, ARCH 5010.
One of the enduring legends of twentieth century American show business is a rather improbable one: Sophie Tucker. It's surprising because her career began as a "coon shouter" in vaudeville in 1906. Despite dropping the blackface rituals of that era after she became a recording artist in 1910, Tucker remained rooted in the racial/ethnic stereotypes of that period and yet continued a major entertainer until shortly before her death in 1966, with only the most minor adjustments to the rapidly changing tastes of each decade. Tucker's career is also surprising in that she was not by any standard a great vocalist (although she recorded continually for fifty years), a great beauty (she was quite heavy), or a great actress (she rarely appeared in films and when she did, she essentially played herself). So why, more than one hundred years after the start of her career, is Archeophone Records releasing a lavishly produced disc of Tucker's earliest recordings from her first in 1910, to 1922, and why is the New York Times covering its release with a lengthy appreciation by Jody Rosen of Tucker's career on the front page of its Sunday Arts & Leisure section (30 August 2009, pp.1,13), describing this disc as "stupendous fun"?
The answer is complicated, but it surely begins with attitudes about sexuality and gender embedded just below the surface of Tucker's musical repertoire, much of which was crafted especially to respond to and enhance her randy and rambunctious persona and specifically fitted to her spirited, albeit limited, vocalizing. She was influenced in equal parts by her Russian-Jewish immigrant heritage and the early twentieth century rhythms of minstrel shows, ragtime, jazz, vaudeville, and Broadway. The attitudes expressed are almost shockingly contemporary. Song titles seem innocent enough--"Missouri Joe," "I'm Glad My Daddy's in a Uniform," "Knock Wood"--but the content is typically laced with double entendre (and sometimes less subtle than that). Some titles--"That Loving Soul Kiss," "My Husband's in the City," "Pick Me Up and Lay Me Down in Old Dixieland"--more directly suggest the blatant sexual attitudes expressed. Among the more radical notions found in these songs and in Tucker's bawdy delivery are the frank acknowledgement and, in fact, celebration of the sexual desires of women and a general flouting of moral rigidities left over from the Victorian era. Passion, adultery, and sex as pure pleasure for both men and women are openly explored for both comic and dramatic purposes in these songs, although most often the approach is broadly comic. Tucker is also self-deprecating about herself as the representative of bold sexuality. She jokes about her corpulence, as she later joked about her age and the vintage songs she sang, but she also makes it clear that the battle of the sexes--and sex itself--belongs to all, regardless of gender, age, or size. In that respect, Tucker emerges as a sexual pioneer.
Tucker's association with minstrel traditions seems, on the surface, to support the racism inherent in it, and, in fact, some of the songs featured on this disc are steeped in racial stereotypes. However, Tucker was as radically forward-looking about race as she was about sex and gender. Unlike many of her white contemporaries, Tucker openly worked with African-American artists and songwriters (and befriended many), despite the segregation in show business and American life during the first decades of the twentieth century. In a time when such liberated behaviors might end a white performer's career, Tucker was fearless. For example, her theme song, "Some of These Days," composed by African American songwriter and entertainer Shelton Brooks (whose other writing credits include "At the Darktown Strutters' Ball"), was critical to her success, and Tucker freely acknowledged his contribution throughout her career. …