A couple of years ago I was appearing at the Blue Room in New Orleans. I came in a few days early to watch a young up-and-comer with one hit song, but she got eaten up and spit out by the Blue Room’s notoriously rough crowd. I have to admit, I get a little kick out of watching a new starlet try to tackle a rowdy audience. The reason we old timers are still going strong is because we’ve paid our dues, with interest. There’s no audience we can’t win.
An advertisement for one of Sophie’s shows at the
Blue Room in 1960, when she was 73.
I love the Blue Room. It's one of the last old guard nightclubs left standing since the British invasion changed music forever. At a late night show there not too long ago, I had just finished singing one of my old songs when I spotted a flying object glittering in the spotlight. I couldn’t believe my eyes when it landed at my feet. Some drunk had thrown a goddamn quarter at me.
The last time that happened was fifty-eight years earlier in New York City during my first few months away from home. That fall and winter in Manhattan were just as tough as any Marine boot camp, without the pleasure of the three square meals a day.
When I got off the Hartford train in September of 1906 I found myself back inside Grand Central for the first time since my family sang our way home from the debacle in the Bronx. I had arrived in town with one suitcase and $148.00, the sum of my Abuza Family Restaurant tips from the previous ten months.
I still remember feeling the wind on my face when I stepped outside onto 42nd Street, a gale that whipped off the street from the rush of hustling bodies and speeding carriages. In the era before stoplights, my first challenge was just getting across the street. I happened to spot a stray horseshoe on the cobblestone in front of me, which seemed like a good omen. I had to have it. It was only a yard or two away but the carriages and small delivery trucks were coming fast and furious. When it seemed like there was a lull in the traffic, I flung my hefty bottom into the street and came out on the other side with a filthy horseshoe reading “NYC Sanitation.”
That same horseshoe still hangs in a place of honor over my fireplace. Whenever I feel the need for a bit of extra blarney, I've been known to take down my first lucky piece of New York City and kiss it, shmutz and all.
Gathering dark clouds and the sound of thunder forced me to find a place to sleep in a hurry, so I stepped into the first hotel I saw. The lobby was huge and extravagant, with blue velvet sofas where delicate women perched like expensive pet birds. It was five dollars a night, a luxury to be sure, but I was convinced I’d land a singing job in a few days and could afford to splurge.
While signing in at the front desk, I heard someone playing the piano in an alcove off the gigantic lobby. I followed the music and came upon a scrawny kid of no more than fifteen wearing a suit two sizes too big. But boy, could he play! I was bowled over. He didn’t even need sheet music. He just sat there with his eyes closed, effortlessly playing tune after tune on the piano. It seemed like he might go on forever, so eventually I strode up to the baby grand to break his trance and introduce myself.
"Hi, I'm Sophie Tuck," I boomed, my pipes getting the better of me, as usual. I startled the poor kid right off his stool and onto the floor.
"You’re something, you know that? What’s your name?"
"My name is Chauncey Oswald," he mumbled in an obviously phony baritone. That name coming from a kid who weighed less than the sandwich I’d packed myself for dinner sent me into one of my patented belly laughs. That seemed to irk him.
"I really am Chauncey Oswald!" he squeaked, this time in his true boyish falsetto.
"Okay, kid. If you say that's your name, that's your name. It’s just that I’ve never met anyone named Chauncey who looked like a kosher salami."
He finally cracked a smile and confided in me that if he’d used his real name, there was no way that hotel would’ve let him through the doors. I guess the only reason I passed muster was because the name Sophie Tuck didn't give away my Jewish roots.
It was still pouring when I woke up the next day after the best night’s sleep I’d ever had. No Tuck, no Mama and Papa screaming over where the money went for the fruit and vegetable delivery, no Annie sneaking into my bed to sleep with me when she had a bad dream, and best of all, no crying baby. I got dressed, asked the manager at the front desk to borrow an umbrella, and headed out onto the wet streets. I had a card from Willie Howard with the address of his friend who worked in Tin Pan Alley.
If you were in the business of music publishing back then, this was the center of the universe. Any act, big or small, that needed a new song would have to come to West 28th Street and tour the hundreds of tiny rooms filled with songwriters convinced they had the next “Bicycle Built for Two.” There were more pianos in those buildings than on the rest of the entire Eastern seaboard. You could hear it from blocks away, like the din of slot machines on the floor of the Flamingo Hotel casino—the sound of a thousand pianos playing a thousand songs at the same time.
The editors of my 1945 autobiography crossed out my description with the biggest red pen they could find, but to hell with them! The experience was positively orgasmic.
Tin Pan Alley circa 1906
Willie’s directions took me to Harry Von Tilzer's office where I presented my introduction card to the receptionist and was told to take a seat. The waiting room was filled with six young women, each more stunning than the last. One by one we were called to the back room. After about an hour I was shown in to see Mr. Von Tilzer, who sat behind a big desk chomping an enormous cigar.
"If one of the Howard Brothers thinks I should see you, I'll see you. Where was your last engagement?"
“Abuza’s,” I answered honestly.
"Is that on the Pantages circuit out west?" he asked, referring to Alexander Pantages, a big Vaudeville producer who Willie and Eugene said owned a slew of theaters.
"No,” I admitted. “It's on the chicken soup circuit in Hartford."
“Is this some kind of gag Willie cooked up? I'm looking for an ingénue and he sends me a fat girl?"
"This is no joke Mr. Von Tilzer. Willie wanted you to hear me sing. He thinks I could be the next big thing."
"You’re already the biggest thing I’ve seen all day,” rang out a woman’s voice from behind me. To my astonishment, there stood Nora Bayes, in the flesh. She glided around my chair and arranged herself on the corner of Mr. Von Tilzer’s desk, interrupting my conversation without a care in the world. All I managed to do was sit there with my mouth open in awe.
"Harry, the girl said you were busy but I just had to see you this very minute. I need my new song for the Hammerstein's opening on Monday."
"Nora, let me finish with...what is your name, girlie?" asked Von Tilzer.
"Miss Tuck, why don't you come back another day when I'm not so busy and I'll be glad to listen to you sing, okay?" asked Harry.
"The next big thing sings?” giggled Nora, evilly. “Perfect. I’m a little bit hoarse today. Harry, be a dear and let her sing my new song. It’ll be a scream.”
For the first of a thousand times in my career, I was about to debut a song that would become the trademark of another artist. Did you ever hear Al Jolson sing “When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along”? Well, that was mine first, in a musical called Lemaire's Affairs. How about “Blue Skies” by Bing Crosby? That was first my showstopper in another musical called Gay Paree.
On this particular wet day in late September of 1906, I treated Nora Bayes to an ear-splitting rendition of Harry Von Tilzer's next colossal hit “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”
Though Sophie sang this first, Nora Bayes made it famous.
"Well, that was certainly something!” Harry remarked. “What do you think, Nora?"
"A little too something if you ask me,” winced Nora, rubbing her ears. “The song will be a winner when I sing it, though.” With that, she took off out the door in a whirl of fur coat and attitude.
Mr. Von Tilzer was a touch more polite but still sent me packing, saying he had no use for a heavyweight who couldn’t box. I thanked him and immediately started knocking on other doors up and down Tin Pan Alley. By the end of two weeks my feet were as sore as my throat. I must've sung in over three hundred of those little cubbyholes without finding a job. I hadn't lost faith, but I was starting to get discouraged.
Thank God for my pal Chauncey Oswald. After the third night I spent sitting by his piano, demoralized and depressed, he suggested I move to a rooming house that would only charge me five dollars a week, provided I washed the breakfast dishes. Oswald also told me about a few cafés on 6th Avenue where we could perform for throw money, which was what they called it when diners tossed a nickel or a quarter at you from their table. Whatever they threw, you got to pick up and keep. We rehearsed a few numbers in the hotel lobby and then hoofed it up and down 6th Avenue. After a week we’d each made $21.48, which wasn’t bad for a skinny kid swimming in his father’s suit and a female prizefighter.
Not every week was so successful. Chauncey fell ill for a while and I raked in far less on my own. Those days, I’d try to make friends on Tin Pan Alley during the day and at night I’d try to convince a café owner to let me sing for my dinner. That worked out for a while until they got wise to how much food I could pack away in a single meal.
Eventually I got to be a fixture in the neighborhood, just like when I walked home from the Brown School. Billy the fish man would trade me some lox for a song. Down the block, Larry the delicatessen owner would toss me a corned beef on rye for an old standard or two. But there were still plenty of nights I went to bed hungry. A bad snow storm could shut down the city and my meal ticket with it, and I’m not too proud to admit that on those days I’d beg for a slice of bread and a bowl of soup.
You can go on to make $15,000 a week, fifty-two weeks a year but you never forget what it's like to hear your stomach growl louder than the horn on the Staten Island Ferry. I guess that's the reason I always have a soft spot and an open pocketbook for any trouper down on his luck. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t met Chauncey, or the Howard brothers? Without a little luck and a helping hand, I could’ve ended up a has-been before I even got started.
So, there I was at the Blue Room with a quarter at my feet. I leaned down and picked it up, which is no small task when you’re in your seventies and zaftig to boot. There was a drunk up against the stage on my left who’d been a thorn in my side all night, so I walked over to address him directly. The club owner made a move to have the drunk ejected, but I waved him off.
“You know, friend, there was a time when I needed this to buy supper. I don’t anymore, but you should probably use it to get some breath mints,” I said, and flipped the coin back to him.
“It wasn’t me!” he slurred.
“I did it,” boomed a familiar baritone voice a few rows back. “Me, Chauncey Oswald.”
We were both a few decades older and he filled out his suit a lot better than he used to, but I’d recognize him anywhere—and you would too! It was Irving Berlin, my first New York accompanist.
Sophie and Irving Berlin in 1940.
Popular English composer Harry Dacre wrote “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)” in 1892 after being forced to pay an import duty on his bicycle while entering the United States. One of his friends remarked: "It's lucky you didn't bring a bicycle built for two, otherwise you'd have to pay double duty." Dacre loved the sound of "bicycle built for two" so much, he had to use it in a song.
The 1926 popular song “The Red Red Robin Goes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along” was written by songwriter Harry M. Woods. Though he originally heard it sung by his friend Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson took this song to the top of the charts.
"Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin was the breakout hit from the otherwise unremarkable musical Betsy , which only ran for 39 performances. Audiences on opening night demanding two encores of the song from star Belle Baker, though she forgot her lyrics during the second reprise and Irving Berlin sang them from his seat in the front row. It was also one of the first songs to be featured in the pioneering Hollywood talkie The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. According to Sophie Tucker, she sang it first in Chicago in her show called LeMaire’s Affairs. Here is another great version done by Frank Sinatra.
This recording of Sophie singing “Blue Skies” comes from a Radio Hall of Fame show honoring Tucker on April 30, 1944.
“Shine On, Harvest Moon” is the name of a popular early-1900’s song credited to the husband and wife Vaudeville team Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, which they debuted in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1908. During the Vaudeville era, songs were often sold outright and the purchaser would become the songwriter of record. The real songwriter was either the team of Edward Madden and Gus Edwards or Dave Stamper, who contributed songs to twenty-one editions of the Ziegfeld Follies and was Bayes' pianist from 1903 to 1908. Whoever wrote it, Sophie claimed she sang it to Nora first. This version is from the 1939 Laurel and Hardy movie Flying Deuces.
Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, "God Bless America" is commonly sung during the seventh-inning stretch in Major League Baseball games, in other sporting events during halftime or between periods, and during the intermissions of similar events. It was just as popular in World War I and II, and every other conflict since. Many people don’t know that it was Irving Berlin who wrote this patriotic tune in 1918.