She is all but unknown today, but in 1962, when a poll asked Americans what they thought of when they heard the name “Sophie,” 95% answered “Tucker.” An easygoing documentary, “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker,” is a genial attempt to raise her current profile.
As impressive as the extent of this singer’s celebrity — Tony Bennett says “she was the biggest entertainer in show business at the time” — is the fact that Tucker was famous at all.
Not classically attractive and admittedly overweight — “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl but Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love” was one of her biggest hits — Tucker parlayed her drive, her personality and her gifts into a huge following.
Directed by William Gazecki, “Outrageous” is the brainchild of writer-producers Susan and Lloyd Ecker, who became obsessed with Tucker after hearing Bette Midler, one of the singer’s fans, frequently reference her.
The Eckers got so deeply into Tucker-world that they spent four years going through the 400 scrapbooks the entertainer kept about her 60-year show business career that started so long ago that talk show host Joe Franklin cracked, “She goes back to the days when the Dead Sea was only sick.”
Though placing the cheerleading Eckers front and center as key interview subjects gives their film a self-congratulatory, gee-whiz quality, “Outrageous” compensates by giving you a good sense of who Tucker was and how she got where she did.
Born in 1886 on a ship taking her Orthodox Jewish parents from Ukraine to Hartford, Conn., Tucker was consumed by singing at an early age. She left a husband and young son to break into vaudeville, her strong voice leading to a start as a blackface singer.
What should have been Tucker’s big break, being hired by the Ziegfeld Follies, ended, or so the legend goes, by her being fired when other singers felt threatened. That turned out to be a blessing because it led to an association with William Morris (yes, that William Morris), at that time a theater owner who had not yet opened his talent agency.
Morris signed Tucker to a handshake deal that lasted for 60 years. Similarly long-lived was her 46-year relationship with accompanist Ted Shapiro, whose practiced banter with the singer is on display in a clip from the 1934 British film “Gay Love.”
Tucker’s voice, powerful yet jazz-inflected and heard on numerous songs in the film, was the heart of her success. An obsessive networker, she is seen photographed with such well-known people as Helen Keller, Golda Meir and Rocky Marciano. She managed to be close friends with both J. Edgar Hoover and Al Capone, the latter of whom sent her a telegram when she opened at one of his nightclubs reading, “They better like you tonight — or else!”
The singer’s stock in trade gradually focused on innuendo and a rowdy, risqué sexuality. She billed herself as “the Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” and that description, plus Tucker’s genius for unswerving self-promotion, always paid off.
Of the voices talking about Tucker in the film, easily the most entertaining is that of Barbara Walters, of all people, whose father, Lou Walters, owned nightclubs in New York and Miami where Tucker regularly performed.
Walters relates how after a performance Tucker would park herself in the club lobby and insist everyone buy her memoir, refusing to give change no matter how large a bill was offered.
“It’s for Israel,” the singer would say, always a strong supporter of the state, as she strong-armed the next purchaser. What Sophie Tucker would have done in today’s world of rampant social media is terrifying to contemplate.
‘The Outrageous Sophie Tucker’
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing at: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Town Center 5, Encino
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