Sophie Tucker (Sonya Kalish), one of the most popular entertainers of early 20th-century America, was born in Tulchyn, Ukraine on this date in 1886. Her reputation in vaudeville was built as a “Coon shouter” in black-face, as male producers thought she’d be rejected as a “big mama” without it, but in 1909, when her trunks were lost, she received an even bigger reception onstage without the make-up. Nevertheless, Tucker’ bluesy and ragtime styles remained heavily influenced by African-American musical culture and African-American songwriters, and she sought out some of the best black performers to help coach her. One of her biggest recording hits was “My Yiddishe Mama,” written by Jack Yellin in 1925. The song was banned in Nazi Germany, writes Anne S. Borden at the Jewish Women’s Archive, because it “had the power to evoke a reverence for Jewish culture and a cultural memory of more peaceful times and was thus threatening to Hitler’s regime.” In 1938, Tucker helped create the American Federation of Actors, a union that she headed as president until it was dissolved for financial irregularities by the American Federation of Labor. Tucker’s successful comic mixing of sex, size and song influenced and opened doors for such women performers as Mae West, Ethel Merman, Roseanne Barr, “Mama” Cass Elliot, and Bette Midler.
“I’ve never sung a single song in my whole life on purpose to shock anyone. My ‘hot numbers’ are all, if you will notice, written about something that is real in the lives of millions of people.” —Sophie Tucker