Today in History

Today in History: January 13

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas

Cover of a piece of sheet music
"You for Me in the Summertime,"
Roy Ingraham, composer,
Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920

Sophie Tucker was born Sonya Kalish to a Russian-Jewish family on January 13. The year was either 1884 or 1886. Family legend has it that baby Sonya was born along the road somewhere in Russia or Poland during her family’s flight to the United States.  Family legend also explains the name change from Kalish to Abuza during this time, as Sophie’s father sought to avoid detection by borrowing the identity of an Italian friend he met along the way. The Abuza family settled in Boston during an era when millions of Eastern Europeans, many of them Jewish, made their way to new homes in America. The immigration station at Ellis Island was opened in 1892 to process the influx of new arrivals, serving as a portal for 12 million people before it closed in 1954.

Sophie Abuza began her career as an entertainer while working as a waitress at her family's restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut, where the Abuzas had moved when she was young. Sophie earned good tips for adding songs and humor to the food service. In her teens she attended local shows and also performed in amateur contests with her sister. After finishing school in 1903, Sophie eloped with Louis Tuck, a local delivery driver, but the marriage did not last.  Soon after giving birth, Sophie Tuck ran away to New York to become a professional entertainer, leaving her infant son in the care of her mother and younger sister.

In New York, Sophie Tuck became Sophie Tucker.  One of her first jobs was at the 125th Street Theater, where her strong contralto voice made her a powerful "Coon Shouter," a white performer who in the style of the day appeared as a blackfaced minstrel. Although Tucker asked to perform without blackface, she was told that she was "too big and ugly." Yet, Tucker’s skill as a performer earned her increasingly higher-paying jobs on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, along with a brief stint in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909.  When one day her costume and makeup were lost in transit, the opportunity for her to perform without blackface presented itself. The audience took to her warmly. As Tucker later wrote in her autobiography, "All the time I was singing five numbers, six, seven, then an eighth, inwardly I was exulting: 'I don't need blackface... I'll never black up again.'" 1

Cover of a piece of sheet music
"Jazz Babies' Ball; Shubert Gaieties of 1919,"
Maceo Pinkard, composer,
Historic American Sheet Music: 1850-1920
"Jazz Babies' Ball" was introduced by Sophie Tucker in the 1919 Shubert Gaieties.

Sophie Tucker soon became known for both her husky voice and her outspoken comedy. When she first heard her own recorded voice she exclaimed, "My God, I sound like a foghorn!"2 But the public loved Tucker's sound and she became a popular recording artist in an era when recordings were still made on cylinders. In 1911 she recorded her hit song "Some of These Days" for the Edison Company. Written by African-American composer Sheldon Brooks, the piece became her theme a decade later. By 1914 Sophie Tucker was a major star, touring in the U.S. and abroad. Elaborately costumed, she perfected a bawdy performance style that blended ragtime and jazz, Yiddish popular culture, and sentimental ballads.

Dozens of songs were written specifically for Tucker, especially by her long-time collaborator and lyricist Jack Yellen.  Tucker's "My Yiddische Momme" ("My Yiddish Mother"), penned by Yellen and composer Lew Pollack in 1925, stirred such emotion and pride among European Jews that the Nazis eventually forbade the sale of its recordings. In 1959, still going strong, Tucker was able to visit and perform in the Jewish state of Israel.

Throughout her life Sophie Tucker was known to be very generous. She bought lavishly for herself, her family, and friends—her parents, for example, were able to give up their restaurant early in her career. Although more of a cultural than a religiously observant Jew, Tucker espoused the practice of tzedakah (charity), the duty of a Jew to establish justice through compassion. Through benefit concerts she raised money for servicemen during World War I, and years later donated to charity all the proceeds from her fiftieth-anniversary record album and her autobiography. She was also a good business-woman and invested her earnings soundly—in real estate and industry.

Sophie Tucker, "The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas" as she called herself (based on another song by Yellen and composer Milton Ager), continued to perform on stage, on the radio, in movies, in recordings, and later on television into her eightieth year.  She married and divorced three times and counted her friends in the thousands.  Tucker died on February 9, 1966, having lived through several major eras of the entertainment business.  Her 1911 recording of "Some of These Days" was added to the National Recording Registry in 2004. The legacy of Sophie Tucker's frank and brassy style continues to emerge in the work of later generations, such as the contemporary women performers Bette Midler and Roseanne Barr.

A woman at a desk piled high with letters
"Sophie Tucker - the personal touch"
Dick DeMarsico, photographer
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

1Sophie Tucker, Some of These Days: The Autobiography of Sophie Tucker (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1945), p. 63. (Return to text)

2Tucker, Some of These Days, p. 99. (Return to text)

The Nullification Crisis

image of letter
Letter, Andrew Jackson to Martin Van Buren,
January 13, 1833.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

On January 13, 1833, President Andrew Jackson wrote Vice President Martin Van Buren expressing his opposition to South Carolina's defiance of federal authority. He closed with the assertion, "nothing must be permitted to weaken our government at home or abroad."

The Nullification Crisis of 1832-33 erupted the previous November when South Carolina nullified a federal tariff that favored Northern manufacturing over Southern agriculture. Complicating matters, Jackson's vice president at that time, South Carolina native John C. Calhoun, firmly believed states had the right to overrule federal laws. South Carolinians agreed and planned to use armed force to prevent duty collection in the state after February 1, 1833.

Calhoun developed the idea of nullification—first put forth in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798—as a strategy for the South to preserve slavery in the face of a Northern majority in Congress. His support of the measure, disclosed midway through his term, was not shared by President Jackson who feared nullification's power to split the Union. This difference of opinion permanently distanced the president and vice president.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson [detail],
Alexander Hay Ritchie, engraver,
circa 1860.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

John Calhoun, full figure, in Statuary Hall II
John C. Calhoun,
Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol,
Washington D.C.,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

The crisis was resolved without bloodshed in March 1833. Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, who had left the vice presidency at the end of 1832 to serve South Carolina in the Senate, drafted a reduced tariff agreement that pacified South Carolina while allowing the Federal government to stand firm. On December 10, 1833, Jackson responded to South Carolina's recalcitrance with a Proclamation to the People of South Carolina. Considered the greatest state paper of the era, Jackson promised to uphold the federal tariff and warned "disunion by armed force is treason."

Calhoun represented his home state until his death in 1850. His final years in office were spent trying to unite the South against attacks on slavery.