'Red Hot Mama' salutes Sophie Tucker in Petaluma solo show
Singer Sophie Tucker is hardly a household name now, but she was famous for decades. Her career spanned more than half a century, starting with burlesque and vaudeville in the early 1900s and lasting until the ’60s, when she often guest-starred on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.”
Large, loud and lusty, the Ukrainian-born belter famously inspired a quip by Paul McCartney when the Beatles played in 1963 at the Queen’s Royal Variety Performance. McCartney introduced the song “Till There Was You” from the play “The Music Man” by saying it had been previously recorded by “our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker.”
Tucker, who died in 1966 at 79, comes back to life onstage in the one-woman show, “Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story,” written and performed by Broadway veteran Sharon McNight. The production opens on New Year’s Eve and runs through January at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.
Sometimes the target of jokes, the bombastic Tucker got off some memorable one-liners of her own, including her declaration that “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”
She embraced her larger-than-life image with self-mocking songs such as “I Don’t Want to Be Thin” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, but Oh, How a Fat Girl Can Love.”
“Sophie Tucker’s voice was like a trombone,” McNight said. “She could really belt it out there. She started out in a nightclub that had three floors. She was on one floor, and on another there was a dancer who was just starting out named Rudolph Valentino.”
Born Sonya Kalish in 1887 to a Jewish family that emigrated from the Russian Empire to Hartford, Connecticut, Tucker began performing in blackface for Vaudeville acts in 1907 at 20, before briefly joining the Zeigfield Follies in 1909. She made her movie debut in 1929 in the early sound motion picture “Honky Tonk.”
As a vocalist, McNight has invested a decades of serious study and research, leading to the creation of a solo show packed with songs that are perhaps better remembered today than Tucker herself, including “The Man I Love” by George and Ira Gershwin, as well as tunes by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.
“It turned out that a lot of the songs I had been doing were her songs. I used to open shows with ‘Darktown Strutters Ball,’ and she introduced that in 1917. It was a big hit for her,” McNight said. “‘Some of These Days’ was her theme song from 1911 on. She recorded it with her first record producer, which was Thomas Alva Edison.”
In 1925, Tucker started singing “My Yiddishe Momme” and had a million-selling hit with it in 1928. A novelty song in English and Yiddish, “My Yiddishe Momme” featured lyrics by Jack Yellen, whose songs included “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Ain’t She Sweet.”
A San Francisco State University graduate now based in Hollywood, McNight has performed “Red Hot Mama” Off Broadway and across the country. In 1989, she appeared on Broadway in the musical “Starmites,” which brought her a Tony nomination for best actress in a musical.
In “Red Hot Mama,” McNight plays Tucker throughout her career, singing some 20 of Tucker’s favorite songs. Flashbacks reveal the singer’s personal life, including her marriages and the birth of Tucker’s son, who was raised by Tucker’s sister.
The show presents several different sides of Tucker’s persona, McNight said.
“Sophie Tucker was considered risqué for the day, like party records. Not dirty, but risqué,” McNight said. “She was also a big publicity hound. She was the first person to go out and sign autographs and sell her records in the lobby of the places where she worked.”
During the show, McNight sings standards that Tucker helped popularize, including “Oh, Johnny,” “She’s Funny That Way,” “It All Depends on You” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.”
“It’s a tough show to sing. I’m on for 90 minutes. All of the songs that I do in the show are songs she introduced,” McNight said. “She had a big hit with ‘The Man I Love,’ and Billie Holiday did it years later.”
Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat
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