Sophie Tucker was the original Red Hot Mama and every hot moment is explored in the delightful new documentary Outrageous Sophie Tucker. It’s new out in theaters in New York, and I saw it at the JCC. So keep an eye out.
There are all the typical celebrity talking heads and accolades, but also surprising insights that came from a four-year study of her exhaustive scrap books. She married three times and also had many female friends, implied as lovers. As a Red Hot Mama, she sang about the sexual pleasures of being fat with all the innuendos the era could stand.
I was genuinely shocked to learn that she started as a ‘coon singer’ in black face, because that’s the only way she could get on stage. She predated Bessie Smith and several other amazing black women singers from the 1920s who revolutionized the blues, singing in a jazz and (Jewish) blues style they must have known and emulated.
A star that made stars, she starred in the first film after The Jazz Singer, featuring Al Jolson, but she called it a “stinkeroo.” Her second, Broadway Melody of 1938, launched Judy Garland with her generous helping hand. She was friends with both Al Capone and J. Edgar Hoover, finding the human in everyone.
The documentary will make you smile, hard, toe-tap to her wonderful voice singing the American songbook, and admire a woman who made it alone when no woman could. She established the American celebrity culture with her insightful marketing and pushed for racial equality and union rights. Plus who doesn’t love a proud, big woman? Here’s a sense of the film: