Sophie Tucker: Oh, How a Fat Girl Can (Live and) Love

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Laurie and Debbie say

Sophie Tucker, legendary singer and performer, died 50 years ago, in 1966. She was a larger-than-life personality, perhaps best known for her song about herself, “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas.” Her Jewish family immigrated from the Ukraine when she was small, and her first singing gigs were entertaining customers in the family delicatessen in Hartford, Connecticut.

We love her for so many reasons, including this one:

I don’t want to get thin./I don’t want to get thin./Why should I, when I’m all right as I am?

I don’t want to get thin./I don’t want to get thin./You can laugh and you can grin./But I’m doing very well the way I am.

Later in the song, she embraces the word “fat,” a word that almost no one ever used about themselves until a decade or so after she died.

As we say in Judaism, “Dayenu.” If that was all she did for the world, it would have been enough. But there’s so much more.

She was a female artist who ran her own career, who didn’t get sucked in or fucked over by the managers, the impresarios, and the scam artists. A lot of stage stars were wary of recording technology – they thought it would undermine their stage act – but Sophie embraced it. “She adapted to changing trends,” says Richard Martin, an owner and producer at Archeophone Records, which has reissued her early recordings.

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William Kremer, in an excellent article about Tucker for the BBC World Service (read the whole thing!), says:

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…”  “Then it went a little further – she would pull her wig off and show her blonde hair – and the audience loved it.”

She went on to fight racism where she found it:

When, in the 1920s, Tucker threw a big party for her sister’s wedding, she invited Bill Bojangles Robinson [African-American tap dancer] along.

“It was in a very fancy-smantsy hall in New York,” says Ecker. “And whoever the doorman was said, ‘OK, well all of you can come in, but the N-word go through the kitchen.’

“Sophie happened to be at the front door greeting all the guests, saw this happen, almost killed the doorman, closed the front door and said, ‘OK – everybody goes through the kitchen.'”

The world is full of really righteous people who live their principles. Some of them are even famous. But not very many get to live their principles in glorious ways after their death, especially as dramatically as Sophie Tucker did at the end of World War II:

“This is the way it happened,” an ex-soldier, Robert Knowles, wrote to Tucker in 1952. “During the war I was with the 12th Armoured Division… there was a young Jewish boy in my company who talked of nothing but the famous Jewish entertainers that we have in our country.”

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And what a time for a Jewish, anti-racist, anti-diet hero to be in voice!