Ever wondered why The Beatles made a joke about American vaudeville singer, Sophie Tucker, not once, but twice on national television?
When The Beatles performed the song “Till There Was You” live during the Royal Variety Performance in London in November 1963, Paul McCartney introduced the song by saying, “It’s also been recorded by our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker.” This curious joke was aimed at Tucker’s size (something Tucker often sang and joked about herself), which received laughter from the audience.
However, Sophie Tucker, the legendary American singer, actress and comedienne, had never recorded the song. Coincidentally, Tucker had performed the year before in 1962 at the Royal Variety Performance. The joke seemed to go over well with the British audience.
McCartney repeated his joke again in the introduction of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” during The Beatles performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 16, 1964 broadcast from Miami. It’s not clear if the American audience thought the joke was funny, but John Lennon started laughing.
Ed Sullivan, who helped launch the careers of Elvis Presley and The Beatles on his TV show, was a huge supporter and friend of Sophie Tucker. She appeared on his show several times. In her final performance on the show in October 1965, Ed Sullivan introduced her by saying:
“One of the great ladies of world show business – we were in London when she opened there, I never saw such a turnout of royalty – The Queen, Princess Margaret. Wherever she travels she’s accompanied by great affection and great respect because she is one of the all-time greats, just as Judy [Garland] is.”
In addition to getting recognition from The Beatles, Sophie Tucker was friends with Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. At that point, 75-year-old Tucker had lasted over 50 years in the entertainment industry in part due to her own unique style of marketing and self-promotion.
“She was a show woman,” said Sophie Tucker scholar, Jan Lewis. “She was like P.T. Barnum, only her commodity, her circus, was herself – and she sold herself… She was a marketing genius.”
Tucker was a mastermind at marketing herself. She would constantly mail thank-you notes and letters of goodwill to friends in the industry. She would send handwritten letters to friends and fans that lived in the local areas of her upcoming shows reminding them to come see her perform. She was the first entertainer to take out ads in newspapers and magazines wishing holiday greetings to the public.
“If you shook her hand and said ‘Hello’, you were in her [address] book,” described Tucker biographer, Lloyd Ecker. “It was a binder that eventually had 10,000 names in it. Before there was Facebook, there was Tucker book.”
Another promoter who liked to send out cards and well-wishes was Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker. He would take every chance he got to send out a card or telegram to wish other entertainers a “Happy Birthday” or “Seasons Greetings”. He would also send best wishes for a good opening night performance.
For example, at the beginning of his show on November 18, 1966, Ed Sullivan read a telegram he received from the Colonel: “Dear Ed, Wishing you and the crowd the best of everything on the start of your new Fall program, the 19th year – Sincerely, Elvis and The Colonel.”
“We can’t be sure but the Colonel probably got the impetus to send Elvis Christmas cards from Sophie,” said co-authors of I Am Sophie Tucker, Susan and Lloyd Ecker. “So did almost all the stars. Tucker was the first big celebrity to start doing it in the 1920s. By the 1960s, her mailing list was over 10,000. If you were in show biz and didn’t get a Sophie holiday card, it was only because you were dead.”
When Elvis was receiving criticism in 1956, Tucker came to his defense saying, “I hear he’s a real nice boy. Some people may not like his style and may not listen again, but they should hear him once and make up their own minds.”
Sophie Tucker sent Christmas cards to Elvis, and Elvis and The Colonel reciprocated. In addition, the Colonel sent several telegrams to Tucker wishing her well on upcoming performances. He also sent her birthday wishes like this telegram from January 1964: “Dear Sophie: On behalf of Mrs. Parker, Elvis and myself again a Happy Birthday and many more to come. Your Pal, The Colonel.”
Parker, like Tucker, understood the importance of marketing and public relations, and acted not only as Presley’s manager, but also as his publicist. He marketed Elvis the old-fashioned way – by making his friends, business contacts and entertainment peers feel special and appreciated by the most simplest of gestures. Like Sophie Tucker said: “Friendship equals box office.”
If you enjoyed this article, more fascinating stories about Elvis Presley and The Beatles can be found in the new book, ELVIS AND THE BEATLES: Love and Rivalry Between the Two Biggest Acts of the 20th Century
ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music