“Sophie Tucker is inside my bones,” insists Chicago-based cabaret singer Carla Gordon. “She and I are both big Jewish girls who wanted to get away from our fathers’ businesses. As entertainers, we both get inside people’s hearts.”
This weekend at Cabaret du Jour at the Tennis Club in Fort Lauderdale, Gordon will perform the songs that made the vaudeville entertainer, recording artist and actress a household name nearly a century ago.
“As a cabaret artist, at a very fundamental level, you’re always you, but I have to say we’re very much alike,” said Gordon, who has been performing her Tucker show across the country for 11 years. “The connection between Sophie and Carla is so real that when I’m me, I’m her. We’re interchangeable entertainers.”
Tucker became famous for her outrageous onstage — and offstage — persona and racy songs, like “You’ve Got to Make it Legal, Mr. Siegal,” and “Myron, You’re Not Desirin’.” And, unlike modern performers, she embraced her appearance.
“At the turn of the century, they told her she was so ugly she needed to appear in black face. One day, her makeup kit got lost and she came out as herself. She told the audience she was just a fat girl from Hartford, Connecticut who was there to entertain them. The crowd went nuts and she never went back.”
Tucker was a trailblazer in many ways, defying the conventions of her time, Gordon learned after doing extensive research. For example, long before actress Katherine Hepburn made wearing pants fashionable for women, Tucker regularly appeared in trousers.
“She was amazing, very self reliant. She had a hardness for a woman of that era,” explained Gordon. “Yet, at another level, she was extremely sentimental and charitable.”
Tucker was known for writing personal notes to friends and fans, sometimes sending out as many as 100 letters a week.
“She connected with people. She’s so interesting to me,” said Gordon.
Tucker also developed a strong following among the gay community, leading Gordon to call her the “Lady Gaga of the day.”
Like Tucker, Gordon is also a favorite of the LGBT community in her native Chicago. The singer got her start as a folk singer in the 1960s, but left music to pursue a career in business.
“I turned 50 and realized something was missing, so I got my first job in the gay bars of Boystown,” recalled Gordon, who created a popular act called, “Don’t Bring the Kids.” In addition to the Tucker show, she also tours with programs devoted to another gay icon, Bea Arthur, and a show of songs written and performed by artists who were blacklisted during the Communist scare of the 1940s and 1950s.
A prolific lyricist and song writer, Tucker is also currently developing a new show, “Borscht Belt Buddy,” with Cabaret du Jour artistic director David Meulemanns, also an internationally-acclaimed performer.
“Can you figure out who going to be the crooner and who’s going to be the wiseguy?” quipped Gordon.