Sophie Tucker and Gladys Bentley

Against her family's wishes, Sophie Tucker (1884-1966) went into vaudeville and became an international star. She sang Blues and Jazz but is best known for her comedy songs often with risqué lyrics earning her the nickname the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”. 

Because she was considered too big and too ugly to perform as a white woman, she had to start out in blackface even though she hated it. While performing in Boston, the costume trunks were lost and she was finally able to go on stage without blackface. She shocked the audience by declaring “You-all can see I’m a white girl. Well, I’ll tell you something more: I’m not Southern. I’m a Jewish girl and I just learned this Southern accent doing a blackface act for two years. And now, Mr. Leader, please play my song.” The audience adored her wit, charm, talent, and body-positive attitude. She never had to wear blackface again.

Her two most famous songs are her signature song, “Some of These Days” (written in 1910 by Black composer Shelton Brooks) and “My Yiddishe Momme” which honored her Jewish heritage and is still sung in both Yiddish and English. In 1932, Sophie was met with antisemitism at a concert in France when she sang it, and in Germany, her records were smashed. 

Tucker was deeply committed to helping others. She contributed to the Jewish Theatrical Guild, the Catholic Actors Guild, the Negro Actors Guild, and formed the Sophie Tucker Foundation. She donated to synagogues and hospitals. While on the road, she would help prostitutes by giving them money to stash away from their pimps. She and her band even did a performance at a house of prostitution who had taken the night off in her honor. She saw the women as people just trying to do their best in a difficult world and never judged them.

Sophie Tucker was one of the most popular and beloved performers of the 20th Century. She was a dear friend of Dr. Margaret “Mom” Chung (WCW 68). Comedian and actor Bette Midler’s  character, “Soph”, is a direct reference to Sophie Tucker. 

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) was another beloved performer of the 20th Century. She sometimes used the stage name Bobbie Minton. Similar to Sophie Tucker, she did not fit the standard beauty norms. Outspoken, large, lesbian, and Black, she wore a trademark white tuxedo on stage.She was a fierce piano player and powerful singer who pushed the limits with racy lyrics and bawdy manner. 

Even as a child, she felt more comfortable dressing in men’s clothing. Despite struggling financially, her parents took her to many doctors to cure her. At sixteen she ran away to New York to become a performer. Boldly flaunting her bulldagger (butch) style, she became a super star of the Harlem Renaissance and performed at all the best clubs such as the Clam House, the Cotton Club, and the Apollo. Bentley headlined at the Ubangi Club with drag queens as her chorus. As a Black lesbian woman in the 1920s, she owned a Park Avenue apartment with servants and famously “married” a white woman.

Times became tough for her during the depression. Most nightclub work dried up. She moved to Los Angeles and was often harassed for wearing men’s clothing but was able to keep working enough to survive by performing at the underground gay clubs there.

Sadly, the social climate of the 50s was too much for her to bear. She had to deny who she was. In 1952, she published an essay called “I Am A Woman Again” in “Ebony” magazine. She publicly declared that she had been “cured” of lesbianism and was happily married to a man. She later divorced him and was preparing to become an ordained minister for The Temple of Love in Christ, Inc., but she died of the flu before she could achieve that goal. She was 52 years old.

Bonus Links:

Sophie Tucker singing “My Yiddishe Momma”
Discography for Sophie Tucker

Gladys Bentley appeared twice on Grocho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life” This is the only record of her television appearance.
Discography of Gladys Bentley (Most of her repertoire was not recorded.)

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