The ‘fat girl’ everybody loved

Sophie Tucker in her mid-60sImage copyright
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The American singer Sophie Tucker, who died 50 years ago on Tuesday, was one of the most successful recording artists of her day. She was on intimate terms with presidents and gangsters, and she showed that it was possible for a female artist to get to the top of show business on her own terms.

In 1962, when Americans were asked what they thought when they heard the name “Sophie” 95% answered “Tucker”.

By this stage, the singer had gambled a fortune away and also given millions to charity. She had known seven US presidents and counted both Chicago mobster Al Capone and FBI boss J Edgar Hoover as close friends. She smoked so much that a parrot, belonging to one of her friends, would cough every time her name was mentioned.

Tucker was known as “the last of the red hot mamas”, a nickname from one of her most popular songs. She would appear on stage and TV shows wreathed in yards of silk and sequins, to deliver songs and skits with her pianist, Ted Shapiro. The material was saucy but always delivered straight, in Tucker’s prim-and-proper New England accent, and accompanied by little waves of a chiffon handkerchief.

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Tucker and Shapiro on stage in 1952

Lois Young-Tulin, Tucker’s first cousin once removed, recalls a joke from the elderly singer’s act. “She always had a pretend boyfriend, Abe, in her jokes. So Abe came to her and said, ‘Sophie, I’m tired of waiting for you – I’m going to get myself a 30-year-old girlfriend.’

“And Sophie said, ‘Go ahead. I’m going to get myself a 30-year-old boyfriend. But just remember, 30 goes into 70 a lot more times than 70 goes into 30.'”

Besides sex and ageing, Tucker’s material focused on her size. She called herself a “perfect 48” and sang numbers with titles like “Nobody loves a fat girl”, “I don’t want to get thin” and “I’m bigger and better than ever”. (“I can offer post-war romance just the way men love it,” she sings in the last of these numbers, “The quality’s improved – and there’s a hell of a lot more of it.”)

“She was an incredible woman – so strong,” says Sue Kelvin, who played Sophie Tucker in a one-woman show in the UK. “She just was this kind of larger-than-life character who just didn’t give a damn about traditional ideals of being beautiful, or being thin or any of that.”

This was the woman who greeted George V, in her 1934 Royal Command performance, with the salutation “Hiya King!”

Media captionSophie Tucker sings the story of her life at the 1962 Royal Variety Performance

Hers was the archetypal American story – a child of poor immigrants, she made a success of herself through chutzpah and hard work.

She was born on the road, to Ukrainian Jewish parents fleeing persecution, and named Sonia Kalish. There is some uncertainty about the date. It’s now thought she was born on 25 December, 1886, although Tucker later decided her birthday was 13 January. (“I don’t want to share my birthday with any other god,” she is supposed to have said.)

From the age of nine Sophie was to put to work in her parents’ Kosher restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut. She married a delivery man named Louis Tuck and had a baby boy, Bert. But the marriage was short-lived, and Sophie felt frustrated by the poverty and narrowness of her situation.

So in 1906, to the great shame of her parents, she ran away to New York, leaving Bert in the care of her little sister.

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At one stage in her life, Tucker played cards every night with Al Capone

She dreamed of becoming a big star, but “starved” in the city. A promoter told her she was too fat and ugly to be a singer, but she would do in blackface, so she spent a year and a half touring as a minstrel singer. She disliked this work, however, and started to sabotage her own act.

“Against the rules, first she would take off a glove and show that she had a white hand, at the end of the act,” says Lloyd Ecker, a self-confessed Tucker obsessive, who with his wife Sue has written a book about the singer and produced a documentary film. “Then it went a little further – she would pull her wig off and show her blonde hair – and the audience loved it.”

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