Monday, March 30, 2020

The Red Hot Mama & the Supreme

Sophie Tucker's career stretched from vaudeville to TV.

It’s a fascinating little mystery mentioned in a review of a biography of Sophie Tucker. Sophie Tucker was a popular singer for much of the 20th century. Tucker (Sonya Kalish) was born in Ukraine in 1887 and came to the United States with her parents as a child. Like many Jews of that era, they escaped Czarist pogroms. She started singing professionally in 1907, often in blackface. Her career had remarkable longevity. She began in vaudeville and achieved national popularity on the radio in the 1920s, but baby boomers might remember her from appearances on television’s Ed Sullivan Show. Few people would recognize her name today.

None of the foregoing is a mystery. It’s Tucker’s connection to a black teenager that intrigues. That teenager, Florence Ballard, was born in 1943.  She’s best known as a founding member of the Supremes, the greatest girl group of all time. She was the least glamorous of the three Supremes. Diana Ross was the lead and diva. Mary Wilson was a less assertive beauty.  Florence was said to have had the best voice, but she lacked the charisma of the others. Motown Records mogul Berry Gordy is supposed to have pushed her out of the group around 1967.

Tucker’s biography reveals that in 1960 when Sophie was nearing the end of her career, she sent the 17-year-old Florence Ballard an inscribed copy of her autobiography. This was weeks before Ballard had signed a contract with Motown. Why was this old Jewish immigrant writing to the unknown black teen? Could it have been that Ballard was a Tucker admirer and had written Sophie a fan letter? 

Who knows? What we do know is that Tucker admired black music. Her performances regularly covered jazz and blues standards. As her popularity grew, she hired African-American songwriters to fill-out her repertoire. She even called herself “the last of the red hot mamas.

Florence Ballard before her departure from
The Supremes
Sophie Tucker died in 1966 at the height of Supremes fame. Florence Ballard died an alcoholic ten years later, never having recovered from getting the boot from Motown. We can only guess at the connection between these two singers, the long-lived immigrant whose Jewish family fled persecution and the Detroit-born teenager whose career would be cut short.   

Today, Jewish Americans can take special pride in that ancestral generation who arrived at New York Harbor as refugees in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It's amazing how quickly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe adapted to this country. The immigrant generation worked hard and if they did not themselves prosper their children often did.

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