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Sophie Tucker: Last of the Red Hot Mamas

Published: 2/9/2014
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Sophie Tucker (AP Photo/John Lent)

Was there ever a force of nature quite like Sophie Tucker? The "Last of the Red-Hot Mamas" would have proved as divisive today as she was in the 1920s, the heyday of her singing career, given her brash stage presence and predilection for singing about her hearty sexual appetite. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. What would modern audiences do with songs like "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love" or "I Don't Want to Be Thin" –– songs in which Tucker lambasted the idea that she should be anything but her full-figured, fabulous self?

These days, when a woman in the spotlight begins to creep toward the proportions Tucker confessed to in her ode to fatness, the tabloids fret and scold, Internet commentators spew hate, and the star rushes to her personal trainer. Sophie Tucker most likely would have eaten those tabloids alive, laughed in the face of the Internet, and taken Christina Aguilera out for a nice, big lunch.

There was a lot to love about Tucker –– and we're not just talking about her size. Here are a few more facts about this red-hot mama:

• In addition to being proudly fat, she was also unashamed to be Jewish at a time when anti-Semitism was socially acceptable. One of her best-loved songs was "My Yiddishe Momme," sung in Yiddish, about which she noted, "You didn't have to be a Jew to be moved by 'My Yiddishe Momme.' "

• In her early career she was expected to perform in blackface, but she never liked it. When she went onstage as herself one night, she declared, "You all can see I'm a white girl. Well, I'll tell you something more: I'm not Southern. I'm a Jewish girl and I just learned this Southern accent doing a blackface act for two years. And now, Mr. Leader, please play my song."

• Soon afterward, she began performing with the Ziegfeld Follies. So flamboyant was her performance that some of the other female stars were unwilling to appear with her, and she was let go from the revue.

• Vaudeville was her enduring love, but she also appeared in movies and on radio and television.

• She was married three times, but none of the marriages lasted more than a few years. Tucker chalked it up to her strong sense of independence: "Once you start carrying your own suitcase, paying your own bills, running your own show, you've done something to yourself that makes you one of those women men like to call 'a pal' and 'a good sport,' the kind of woman they tell their troubles to. But you've cut yourself off from the orchids and the diamond bracelets, except those you buy yourself."

The Beatles loved her –– and they weren't the only ones. Tucker is credited with influencing many female entertainers who came after her, among them Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Cass Elliott and Bette Midler.

Sophie Tucker died Feb. 9, 1966, having apparently enjoyed every bit of her life to the fullest. Perhaps today's pop stars could take a page from Tucker's book –– it was an entertaining book indeed. She made "being yourself" an art form –– and her fans loved her for it.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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