Long before Lady Gaga, Sophie Tucker had the corner on outrageous

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The inimitable Sophie Tucker.

She wasn’t exactly a looker, and no one would ever accuse her of being slender. That didn’t stop Sophie Tucker from rising to unprecedented superstardom in a career that spanned six decades. In fact, it probably helped.

After running away from her Orthodox Jewish family in Hartford, she stole the show at the Ziegfeld Follies at age 22 and until she died in 1966, was famed as a brassy show-stopper, a diva, a marketing genius, even a heartthrob. Her life mirrored the intense period of change that transformed the entertainment industry: from vaudeville, to radio, to talkies (she starred in one of the first, custom-designed for her) to television (a medium she didn’t love cause it required her re-working her act).

The star got the name and address of everyone she met, and kept up a dizzying correspondence (as well as scrapbooks brimming with memorabilia.). Before Facebook, says filmmaker Lloyd Ecker, there was Tuckerbook. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Once, she got arrested for her racy lyrics, and her raunchy performances and unabashed sexuality gave way to a school for women on how to cultivate their feminine wiles. “The Red-Hot Mama,” as she was called, was also a generous philanthropist, friend to the mob and presidents and powerful men like J. Edgar Hoover, and mentor to the likes of Judy Garland.

Tony Bennett called Tucker the “most underrated jazz singer that ever lived.” While it would be impossible to distill this remarkable woman’s career, a new documentary, headlining the opening of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival in Beverly Hills on Thursday night, does a compelling job of relaying the cultural importance of this early 20th century star.

Susan and Lloyd Ecker
Rekindling Sophie Tucker: Susan and Lloyd Ecker (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

We talked to producers and biographers Susan and Lloyd Ecker about their life-long fascination with Tucker.  After selling a business and finding themselves bored with retirement, they spent the last nine years immersing themselves in her life in order to recreate it for this film and a series of fictionalized memoirs. They’re in town for the festival and joined us at KCRW.