Houston Blues

Women Be Wise

Remembering Fifth Ward's Sippie Wallace, who was born and died on this date.

By John Lomax November 1, 2013

One of the brightest stars of America's first commercial blues boom, Sippie Wallace was born this day in Houston in 1898 and died exactly 88 years later in Detroit. In between, she recorded dozens of classic blues sides with the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet, swore off the devil's music in favor of gospel, returned to her raunchy roots in the 1960s, when she helped shape Bonnie Raitt.

Born Beulah Thomas in Fifth Ward, where her father served as a deacon at Shiloh Baptist Church, which stands today on Lyons Avenue as First Shiloh Baptist Church. Her family dubbed her Sippie because, as she once said, "I was so gap-toothed I had to sip everything," but that impediment never hindered her singing voice, as she sang and banged the piano at church from an early age and continued singing right up to the end.  

Despite her straight-and-narrow parents' best efforts, young Sippie and some of her siblings heeded the siren's call of the traveling tent shows then passing through Fifth Ward, package tours featuring dancing girls, snake charmers, snake-oil salesmen, and lots of ragtime piano. One night a chorus girl didn't make her mark and Sippie was brought in from the crowd, and soon enough Sippie was a regular in the cast, taking turns singing, dancing and snake-charming.

Meanwhile her brother George Thomas had made a name for himself in the New Orleans music scene, so in 1915, Sippie and Hersal Thomas, their piano prodigy of a brother, beat feet east to join him. She was in the Crescent City for the first full flowering of jazz and joined the likes of Amstrong and others who moved north to Chicago in the early '20s. While still in New Orleans, she met and married Matt Wallace; hence the name with which she went into music lore.

Things moved fast after the move north, and soon Sippie Wallace was signed to OKeh Records atop the "race records" charts.  Hits from the "The Texas Nightingale" included the smash "Shorty George Blues," "Women Be Wise" (recorded by Bonnie Raitt) and the raunchy "I'm A Mighty Tight Woman" and Wallace was at the time every bit as famous in the black community as Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

Meanwhile her brother Hersal was also off to a flying start. Two records he co-wrote with George and cut before reaching adulthood --"Suitcase Blues" and "The Fives" -- were hits, especially with other piano players. Sadly, Hersal Thomas was one of our greatest "What if?" stories as he passed away under murky circumstances (some cite food poisoning) in 1926, when he was all of 19 years old. Years later, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis cited him as vital in the development of boogie-woogie piano, the music linking ragtime and eventually rock and roll.

By 1936, changing popular tastes, a spate of personal tragedies and the Great Depression brought a temporary end to Sippie's recording career, and she spent most of the next three decades singing gospel and playing the organ in a Detroit church.

The folk and blues boom of the 1960s brought her out of this sanctified semi-retirement, and by the 1970s she was touring with Bonnie Raitt and appearing at festivals across America and in Europe. 

In 1985 she returned to Houston for the first time in over 50 years, toddled out on stage at Miller Outdoor Theatre during the Juneteenth Blues Festival, and crowed that "A hard man is good to find," before singing a lusty version of "I'm A Mighty Tight Woman."

She also made appearances on Late Night With David Letterman and Today.

Now that's a life in show business: from Fifth Ward snake oil tent shows in Woodrow Wilson's America to jamming with Paul Schaffer on national TV in Ronald Reagan's second term.

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