Carla Gordon is “Hotsy Totsy” as Sophie Tucker Returns as The Red Hot Mama

46 (1)Sophie Tucker called Chicago her “second home. While performing in Chicago, Tucker heard ‘Some of These Days’ played by its composer, pianist Shelton Brooks. It was presented by Tucker in 1910 at Chicago’s White City Park.  She recorded it six times, adopting it as her theme (and title of her autobiography). It sold a million copies in sheet music alone.  Singer, Song Writer, Carla Gordon brought the infamous Sophie Tucker back to life during her tribute show last Sunday at the Skokie Traditional Synagogue. Carla’s incredible wit and style not only recreated Sophie Tucker, but told the story of the legend whose life spanned the 20th century and was an entertainment treasure.

Sophie Tucker who entertained in early vaudeville, radio, and talkies, progressed to early television with The Ed Sullivan Show, The Judy Garland Show and many others. Sophie Tucker was also a Chicago staple performing at Chicago nightlife spots such as the Chez Paree, Mr. Kelly’s, The Oriental Theater and even the Green Mill in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. During the 1930’s, many of the theater stars, such as Sophie Tucker, would go out and perform a number of sets at clubs after their theater performance. Many of these performers would stay up until the wee hours of the morning. The work would be exhausting, with very little pay.  However, during that time, it seemed rewarding to the artists and the audiences.  Clubs such as the Chez Paree and Mr. Kelly’s is where Sophie Tucker brought these shows to the stage.

Sophie Tucker who was born in 1887 as Sonya Kalish to Russian parents who immigrated with Sophie to America from the Soviet Union’s Ukraine when she was a child. Sophie’s family then settled in New York and later in Connecticut where her parents owned a restaurant. It was at that restaurant where Sophie began to sing and loved to make people laugh.  From there, Sophie went on to sing at other restaurants and began her career in 1906. Sophie who was proud of her Jewish heritage, was forced to perform in black face because  in 1919 as a Jewish performer, you couldn’t be overly Jewish.

Sophie Tucker, the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” became known as the brassy entertainer belting out tunes like “After You’ve Gone”, and, “Some of These Days”, which was written by an African American composer.  She also sang some funny songs with hilarious  lyrics like “I Don’t Want to get Thin”, and the song “Mr. Siegel Make it Legal for Me” with lyrics, “You didn’t take me to the stork club you took me to the stork.” In the song “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”, the lyric “When I kiss a man they think they had their tonsils out”; proves that Sophie’s songs were perfect for vaudeville and night clubs and are salted with a lot of sexual innuendo that was very racy for that time. Sophie Tucker made all of these songs her own and created the legend that Carla Gordon so wonderfully recreated with her outstanding performance.

Carla’s ability to tell the story through Sophie Tucker’s music, kept her audience captivated, enjoying the music, the stories and the humor. Many of the audience at the Skokie Traditional Synagogue who were in their golden years, smiled with every song and every story that Carla so movingly told. This experience brought the audience back to a happy time during their youth, remembering this great entertainer who was a part of their heritage.

Carla Gordon who is known for writing many amusing parodies has produced other tribute shows which included “Bea”, a tribute to actress Bea Arthur and Borscht Belt Buddies, which Carla performed with her late friend, famed Chicago singer Jimmy Damon who passed away last spring.  During Jimmy Damon’s illness last year, he asked Carla to write a song for him. Carla eloquently penned, “The Business of a Singer” which pays tribute to the late Damon and all of the other night club performers who work so hard at their craft. Carla most recently performed the song at the Chicago Cabaret Professional’s Gala and, on Sunday evening ended her show with the song at the Sophie Tucker Tribute. Aside from Carla’s song writing and performing expertise, Carla is an active member of the Chicago Cabaret Professionals (CCP), producing many shows and is an active supporter of the organization. Additionally, Carla reviews many cabaret performances for Cabaret Scene’s a national cabaret publication.  Along with producing reviewing and Carla’s involvement with CCP, Gordon has appeared at the Park West Theater, Drury Lane Water Tower Place, Evanston First Night, and, The Metropolitan Room in Manhattan.  Cabaret Scenes Magazine  has also called Gordon, “polished”,”hilarious”,”show stopping”, and “very moving”. I firmly agree!

Carla who was accompanied by Chicago entertainer Bob Moreen, delivered Sophie’s bawdy material with a sultry edge. Ted Shapiro a song writer and arranger, who wanted to become Sophie Tucker’s musical director, didn’t make it the first time. However, Sophie ended up giving him a 2nd chance and their partnership lasted for 40 years. Ted wrote many songs for her, one of which was “If I Had You” which is one of my all-time favorites.  Bob Moreen was invited to sing the song, and he sang with the style and grace that only Bob Moreen can do so well. Another treat of the evening, was an appearance by Fanny Brice, who was portayed by singer, Jan Slavin.  Carla and Jan’s portrayal of Sophie and Fanny illustrated the friendship that they had for each other. It was evident that Carla and Jan have an equal friendship in this life.  Fanny’s song, “Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love” was complete with Fanny’s comic relief and character, along with the apron Jan was wearing. Jan and Carla then sang a lovely duet of “I’d Rather Be Blue”. To top the night off Carla, as Sophie sang a beautiful version of “My Yiddishe Mama” complete with a Yiddish verse. Even though, I am a Catholic boy raised in Skokie, I have to say it brought a tear to my eye.

Carla proves to be a living testament to Sophie Tucker with her humorous delivery and her intimate connection with the audience. Like Sophie Tucker, Carla’s Jewish heritage embraces this rich history and  beloved famous 20th century icon.

Carla Gordon says she feels a special kinship with Sophie Tucker, saying: “Sophie paved the way for today’s singers and comediennes.” Her bawdy humor and enormous energy had a great influence on the careers of entertainment notables such as Bette Midler and Joan Rivers. In fact, Bette Midler loved Sophie Tucker so much, she named her daughter Sophie. Jokingly, Gordon says, “Sophie and I are two big Jewish girls who decided it’s great fun to make people laugh.”  I have to say that Carla succeeds in every way. Coming from a Catholic boy from Skokie, Carla is definitely “Mishpucha” with her audience!