‘Some of These Days’
She was a shouter, a moaner, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Sophie Tucker marketed herself as a force of nature, a ribald female Falstaff, whose belted sass, sex, and schmaltz paved the way for Mae West, Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and others.
She was Elvis before Elvis – a white singer who cribbed her style from African American culture. Her transformation from an Orthodox Jewish shtetl girl to a grand, big-hearted, bedecked pop idol is more extreme than Bob Dylan’s.
First she was Sonya Kalish, born on the run from Poland to America in the dead of winter, January 1887. A natural belter, she started singing in her family’s restaurant in Hartford as a kid. She eloped when she was 16, had her only child at 19, left her husband entirely and her son with her sister and began singing and telling jokes in New York wherever she could.
Up until this time, lady singers were refined things, more suited to the parlor than the barroom. Women did not own up to sexual impulses unless they were fallen, or in the process of falling. Tucker really didn't give a damn about societal norms, and took her cue from the raw, bluesy kind of music that white culture wasn’t hip to yet. The minstrel show was still supreme, and she began as a blackface singer, as no one thought the crowd would buy her as anything but a novelty act. One night, she dropped the makeup and the Southern shtick, sang as herself, and began to catch on, singing rags, blues, novelty numbers, and ballads. (“Makin’ Wicky Wacky Down in Waikiki,” anyone?)
Tucker’s voice and temperament were perfectly suited to the new, lowdown boldness in music. In the pre-electric era, singers had to project over an orchestra into a house of indifferent acoustics. Vaudeville houses averaged 1,500 seats, so enunciation, tone, and sheer volume won the day. Singers such as Al Jolson and Nora Bayes were just loud. Tucker “got over” using a technique she learned from fellow performer Clarice Vance, another former “coon singer” turned popular performer. Vance’s half-talked, draggy style fed Tucker’s bantering, flirtatious persona. Tucker later befriended and learned from contemporary singers such as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters -- two of the earliest popular black female recording artists.
More importantly, Tucker could transmit energy; she could “sell” any song. She didn’t hold back emotionally – she demanded your attention and got in your face. Her other surefire hit was the tearjerker “My Yiddishe Mama.” If she couldn’t get you with suggestiveness, she’d get you with the sentiment.
This, her signature song, was written by Shelton Brooks, the black composer who also penned “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone,” and many others. In the wake of W.C. Handy, Brooks and others were figuring out how to wrangle the new rhythms and harmonies of blues and proto-jazz into the more genteel, verse-chorus-verse conventions of the ballads of the period.
The version chosen for the Registry is her first recording of the work, although her best-remembered recording of it comes from 1926, backed by Ted Lewis and his orchestra. The 1926 version is more confident, and by this time she's strongly rooted in her stage persona. In contrast, the 1911 is a bit stiffer, but also more emotionally naked. Over a century later, there is still something undeniably sexy and powerful about the way she throws in a plaintive "ummm" before singing "You know honey/I let you have your way . . . "
The song is straightforward and effective, a simple blues lament. As delivered, it's also cathartic, the way that blues are meant to be sung, and a triumphal crow, the celebration of getting over something bad. It’s conceivable that somewhere, someone has sung it slowly and quietly, in the spirit of the hit “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” of the previous year – but the song and Tucker’s hip-shaking, scarf-waving seismic delivery are for me inseparable. She came back to it repeatedly throughout her career, as she changed from being regarded as a transgressor to an innovator to a star to a beloved, nostalgic figure.
The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Lillian Russell and ‘Come Down Ma’ Evenin’ Star.’