Sharon McKnight in Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Songbook

Billed as “The First Lady of Show Business,” Sophie Tucker returned this week to star at Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter and prove again that the “last of the red-hot mamas” has plenty of heat left.   Tips On Tables – Robert W. Dana – September 29, 1950

Sophie Tucker (Sharon McKnight) makes her way through tables of admirers. The black velvet gown with rhinestone clips is poured over substantial corsetry; her hair is tightly coiffed. “Ok, let’s take a look atzya…” she cracks. The star has at his point been in show biz for 43 years and will perform another 37. At the piano, Ted Shapiro (Ian Herman) is ready with vamps and wisecracks as if hooked into her mischievous, gritty brain.

I’m the last of the red hot mamas/They all cool down with me, she sings, arms up, elbows bent marching forwards and back with innate bounce. (Milton Ager/Jack Yellin) Born in Russia when the Czar “didn’t take too kindly to the Jews,” Sofya “Sonya” Kalish immigrated with her family to the US. She sang in her parents’ restaurant, then, in 1907, moved on to vaudeville. Ostensibly because of her size, the artist was at first made to sing in blackface.

Burleque followed, then The Ziegfeld Follies. Representative William Morris picked Tucker up when ladies of the follies, refusing to share a spotlight, got her thrown out. You gotta see your mamma every night,/Or ya cantz ee your mamma at all!..da, da, yada, da, da…ev-er-y night…(Billy Rose/Con Conrad) Waving her signature hanky like a semaphore, step-point, step-point, she segues into Shelton Brooks’ “Darktown Strutters Ball.”

A proponent of simple, honest lyrics, “no shim-sham, no shilly-shally,” Tucker begins “It All Depends on You” (B.G. De Sylvia/Lew Brown/Ray Henderson) ruefully talking. It’s the entertainer’s style to seamlessly shift back and forth from parlando to melody as dramatic effect dictates. The second verse is a light tap with rambunctious piano, wavering denouement, a quiet ending. This is finesse.

Recording began with Thomas Edison’s cylinders. “Mr. Edison used to say, I had such a big voice, I could audition in Hartford and they’d hear it in New York.” (No microphone is apparent tonight, none needed.) Enunciation is back alley meticulous.

The droll “Hula Lou” (Jack Yellin/Milton Charles/ Wayne King) is performed with a grass skirt over her gown. Dancing is perfection, balletic hands and all. …Cause I’m Hula Lou/I’m the gal that can’t be true/I do my nestin’ in the evenin’ breeze/’Neath the trees/I got more sweeties than a dog has fleas…Bending to pick up an errant piece of straw, Tucker warns women at a front table to back up in case her girdle busts. The show is full of well mined one-liners. “In 1906, ten cents got you a one reel slapstick comedy and me, twenty shows a day, twenty bucks a week.”

“He’s a Good Man To Have Around” (Milton Ager/Jack Yellen) arrives stop/start with on the mark piano chords. “If Your Kisses Can’t Hold The Man You Love” (Vivian Ellis/Jack Yellen) sells like a shiny new Cadillac on discount… And there’s nothing like a weeping wyatt/to drive a man away from home./Laugh and the world laughs with you,/ weep and you sleep alone… Some lyrics are spit, some massaged. “Neglected wives should worry – that’s what God made sailors for!” she quips.

The artist had three husbands. For one she bought a service station naming it Sophie Tucker’s Garage. “He was pumping everything but me.” A slow, soulful “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” (William Higgins/Billy Wigins/ William Benton Overstreet) has real gravitas, not the usual empty promise. It’s a husky warning.

Making herself the butt of her own fat jokes is common. …other mamas…may fill my shoes but not my pajamas… “I Don’t Wanna Get Thin” (Jack Yellen/Milton Ager) is offered with back and forth vaudeville rejoinders. The lady is sassy and self-realized long before “fat” become the polictical “curvy.”

When Tucker is sure of her audience, she includes iconic Jewish numbers. Lew Pollack/Jack Yellen’s famous “My Yiddishe Mama” is imbued with just the right Lower East Side inflection and more than a dollop of pathos. The club stills. Her hysterical rendition of “Myron”…yer not desirn’ showcases terrific comic timing. Make no mistake, this is an actress.

Tucker raised money to buy cigarettes for doughboys: Butts for Britain; Fags for France. She got through Prohibition and The Great Depression becoming an international sensation and intermittently single.  “I’m Living Alone and I Like It” (Jack Yellen/Milton Ager) is defiant. During Cole Porter’s “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love,” she picks discretely up her skirt and dances…a slap and a tickle/is all that a fickle/man ever had in his head… Wisdom comes in all forms.

“The Man I Love” (George and Ira Gershwin) is sung with hands in fists, at first as a ballad, then honky-tonk. There’s a substantial amount of history and self awareness on stage tonight. “Maybe that’s the big mistake, turning myself into a breadwinner…” At one point her voice breaks, dips, then rebounds. We go with it. Arthur Freed/Nacio Brown’s anthemic “Some of These Days” closes the parenthesis.

Apparently Sharon McKnight has been doing this show some 16 years. Having not seen it before, I can’t testify to differences. What I can do is unequivocally recommend the piece.  Not for a second does it feel worn or the artist seem as if she’s skating. It’s feisty, fresh, and a little blue. Both McKnight’s voice and her audience reflexes are well honed. Channeling Sophie Tucker is like slipping on a fur.

Ian Herman’s artful vamping and terrific playing serve every lyric and mood with Tucker’s own imaginative arrangements.

54Below should bring this back so a new generation can revel in Sophie Tucker and her current, skilled alter ego.

“From birth to age 18 a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35 she needs good looks. From 35 to 55 she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash.”
Sophie Tucker

Sharon McKnight in Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Songbook
MD/Piano Ian Herman
54Below
254 West 54
th Street
April 18, 2019

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Photo credit: Mary Ann Halpin

About Alix Cohen (627 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.