The Outrageous Sophie Tucker: A life & legacy explored
Before Cher, Madonna, P!nk or Lady Gaga, there was Sophie Tucker. Ahead of her time, this unconventional dynamo paved the way for generations of female performers and created a career that lasted 60 years. Although she was one of the preeminent entertainers of her time, recognition of Tucker’s achievements were beginning to fade from popular memory when Susan and Lloyd Ecker took an interest. Inspired to learn more about the bold and bawdy artist after Bette Midler referenced her on stage, research led the Eckers to pen a fictional memoir, I am Sophie Tucker. The couple is also behind a documentary currently on the film fest circuit, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker. We had the opportunity to talk to Susan and Lloyd about becoming authors and filmmakers and about what they’ve discovered while diving into the life and legacy of “the last of the red hot mamas.”
I know you became interested in Sophie Tucker because of Bette Midler, but how did that casual curiosity turn into this?
Susan: Initially, we just wanted to find out more about who Sophie Tucker was. We began to research the 400 scrapbooks that she left—most of which were in the New York Public Library, although her later life was in the Brandeis University Library. Just four books in we realized we had access to a treasure trove. When we saw the scrapbooks and exactly how much material there was we knew we had not only enough for a movie and a play, but for six years of a television series even. It was such a fascinating story. We quickly opted to research the later books first because if there was anyone still alive who had interacted with Sophie we’d find them there.
How were you able to undertake this?
Lloyd: I sold my business. We were specialists at collecting pregnant people, in a good way.
Susan: He means data. We’d offer parents-to-be a gift for their information. Companies could market to pregnant families and the families would get free samples of things. We ended up selling that business to a public company and the money we made gave us financial independence.
Lloyd: Right away, I wanted to make a film. I said, ‘First we’ll make a documentary then we’ll write a book and do a screenplay. Eventually maybe Bette Midler will play an older Sophie and she’ll win an award.’
Susan: While we were researching Sophie, someone actually called us up and said that they were doing a CD of music from the Edison cylinders that Sophie did in 1910-11. They hoped we might take a shot at the liner notes. We’d never written liner notes and we didn’t know a B-flat from an A-flat, but Lloyd said he could tell stories about Sophie from our research.
Lloyd: They were used to getting granular on the music. Even though I had played music as a kid I didn’t know music like that. But I did know everything that led up to those recordings. I said I could guarantee one thing—that it would be funny. We wrote 10 pages and sent it to them and they asked for another 15. All of a sudden it was a 70-page book.
Susan: It was the size of a cd, but there are pages of stories and photos.
Lloyd: It was a good test of our writing. But what happened next was even crazier.
Susan: It got written up in the New York Times on the front page of the arts section. From there, we go nominated for a Grammy for the album notes. There are two categories of awards that are non-musical—album notes and packaging. Who knew?
Lloyd (laughing): We’re going for packaging next.
Susan: We hired someone to dress up as Sophie and we walked the red carpet. It was beyond what we ever expected. It’s an example of how this whole project has provided experience after experience.
How controversial was Sophie, really?
Susan: Any of the, say, sex songs she did . . . she did them for publicity. Just like some of the things Lady Gaga or Madonna do today.
Lloyd: Even when she was 70. New York City decided that every nightclub worker should have a fingerprint license. She saw an opportunity for publicity and refused saying, “They’re going to have to come down here and arrest me.” So she’s doing her show and the cops come in. She says, “Boys, can you wait till I finish this up?” Sure, no problem. “Do you mind if I change before we go?” Sure, no problem. So she calls all the reporters and they meet her at the station.
So a lot of the buzz she created was to spark press coverage?
Lloyd: Absolutely. When she went in to get her tooth pulled, she’d tell everyone she was dying. And then when she was actually sick it became national news.
How did she justify having friendships with gangsters and lawmen, do you think?
Lloyd: The gangsters were simple. They were running the clubs. That was part of her job. But people like J. Edgar Hoover were attracted to her different reasons. And she was always friends with the chief of police because she knew she needed them on her side.
Susan: And yet, she also performed in prisons. Everyone was a potential audience member to her. She didn’t discriminate.
Lloyd: These relationships helped her in many ways. During the war Sophie received some anti-Semitic letters. J. Edgar told her not to touch them and to send them to be fingerprinted so they could catch the person.
Do younger audiences connect with Sophie Tucker?
Lloyd: We were going to name the film “Who the Hell is Sophie Tucker?”
Susan: For the most part, no one younger than 55 remembers Sophie Tucker, except maybe some members of the LGBTQ community. They seem to know her.
Lloyd: That’s why we originally hired Phil Ramone. We wanted to make an album of music with contemporary stars doing Sophie Tucker’s songs. We wanted to get younger people to know her that way.
What do you think Sophie’s legacy is?
Lloyd: Without her, there wouldn’t have been a Mae West. There wouldn’t have been a Marilyn Monroe.
Susan: No Joan Rivers. No Sarah Silverman.
Lloyd: All these women pushing the envelope? Sophie came before them.