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Wallace, Sippie

Sippie Wallace

Sippie Wallace (1898–1996) ranks among the classic female American blues singers. Her songs "Lovin' Sam," "I'm a Mighty Tight Woman," and "Up the Country" numbered among the most popular blues in the United States during the 1920s, and she went on to gain renewed popularity among subsequent generations of fans.

During the Blues craze of the 1920s, Sippie Wallace took blues audiences by storm, and her strong, rhythmic style reflected her Texas roots and the influences of the best of New Orleans jazz. A woman with incredible charisma onstage due to her upbeat, flamboyant style, she also captivated listeners who never saw her in live performance through the many recordings she made for Okeh. Rising and falling on the wave of the blues craze, Wallace enjoyed a revival in the wake of the Folk Music revival that swept college campuses in the late 1950s and 1960s.

The events of Wallace's life—a mixture of good luck and bad, served as inspiration for her music. The bad—poverty, misguided love, loss, and death—was part of the human condition, particularly that of blacks and women; the good—her ability to translate life's misfortunes into song—was her gift to the world. When Wallace said "I sing the blues to comfort me on," she claimed her music as a personal expression, a catharsis of feelings and emotions uniquely hers and yet reflective of many in her audience.

Wallace was born Beulah Belle Thomas in Houston, Texas, in 1898, the fourth of thirteen children of hardworking George W. Thomas and his wife Fanny, both of whom passed on to her their strong religious beliefs, and grew up in the security of a close-knit family. She gained a love of music while playing the organ and singing at the Shiloh Baptist Church, where her father served as a deacon, and also spent hours listening outside the tent at traveling blues and ragtime shows. She earned her nickname in elementary school because, as she often explained, "My teeth were so far apart I had to sip everything."

Sippie was not the only Wallace child to possess musical talent: her older brother, George W. Thomas, Jr., went on to become a musician and composer; younger brother Hersal was a composer and pianist, and older sister Lillie was a strong vocalist. Wallace learned from her older siblings—Lillie helped her little sister hone her singing while George Jr. often sat at the piano and improvised melodies to young Sippie's invented lyrics—and worked up an act with pianist Hersal. When George Jr. moved to the Storyville section of New Orleans in 1914 to break into the music business, fifteen-year-old sister Sippie followed, with Hersal in tow. Wallace was enthralled by the life of the entertainers she met there, as well as by a man named Frank Seals whom she soon married.

Wallace's early marriage proved disastrous, and ended in 1917. The following year Wallace returned home to Houston, but her desire to perform quickly overcame her efforts to complete her high school education; she had been out in the world, and her life in Houston could not compete with the stage. She finally got a job as a stage assistant to Madame Dante, who worked as a snake dancer with Philip's Reptile Show, a touring production that traveled throughout Texas. Wallace was soon on stage performing bit parts, performing ballads, or singing and dancing with the troupe chorus, until she met Matthew Wallace, whom she quickly married. Settling in Houston, where her husband's gambling career centered, Sippie linked up with small bands at dances and picnics throughout the state. Because of her smooth, sweet voice, Wallace quickly gained the name the "Texas Nightingale."

Found Recording Career after Move
North

In 1920 Wallace joined George in Chicago, where he had become a successful composer and bandleader and had other connections in the ragtime and jazz music industry due to his job at the W. W. Kimball Company. Wallace's husband, Matt, also relocated north, and helped promote his wife's singing career. With Matt's encouragement and George's connections, Wallace formed a trio with brothers George and Hersal and signed a recording contract with Okeh Records in late 1923. Okeh general manager Ralph Peer knew that Sippie and her brothers would prove popular among the African American to which they marketed what was known as "race music." At her first recording session with Okeh, held in New York in May of 1924, she recorded "Leavin' Me Daddy Is Hard to Do," "Stranger's Blues," "Underworld Blues," and "Caladonia Blues." The last two songs were written by Wallace and brother George W. Thomas, Jr. Due to the immediate popularity of these sessions, many other sessions followed, both in New York and Wallace's home town of Chicago, and Wallace soon became one of Okeh's top vocalists.

Okeh recorded Wallace's "Shorty George Blues" in Chicago on October 26, 1924, and the single was successful enough to sell over 100,000 copies. Recognizing Wallace's talent—as a mature singer she developed an earthy, "shouting blues" style influenced by both her native Texas as well as New Orleans and Chicago jazz—and her stage appeal, Okeh promoted her as "The Texas Nightingale … with her high-C blues wailing." The record company soon paired her with its top sidemen, among them such soon-tobe jazz greats as Clarence Williams (piano), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Sidney Bechet (soprano saxophone and clarinet), Eddie Heywood (piano), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), King Oliver (cornet), and Perry Bradford (piano). She was also part of the famous Williams Blue Five session, which included Armstrong and Bechet and was taped for Okeh in 1924. Wallace would record over forty sides for Okeh before her contract expired in 1927, including "I'm a Mighty Tight Woman," "Lazy Man Blues," written by brother Hersal Thomas, and "Special Delivery Blues," penned by Wallace herself.

By 1924 Wallace had joined another traveling tent show as a singer, donning the feathered and sequined costumes that she loved and belting out her country-style blues to audiences in many parts of the south. The sidemen who performed with her were top-notch New Orleans jazz musicians, and their shows wowed audiences during the nation's blues craze.

Beset by Personal Tragedies

In 1929 Wallace signed a recording contract with RCA-Victor, but the situation quickly changed. The music industry was on the brink of a downslide due to the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Blues craze had abated. In addition, the phenomenal growth of radio took its toll on the record industry, and sales of race records plummeted as a result. At a Chicago session held on February 6, 1929, she recorded four sides. Only two—"You Gonna Need My Help" and a rerecording of the erotically suggestive "I'm a Mighty Tight Woman," one of her most popular songs—were released. With neither the experience nor the guidance from her brother to guide her in refocusing her career, Wallace was unable to adapt her style to changing tastes, and by 1932 she had slipped into the same obscurity as other female blues artists of her era.

After her early successes, Wallace was met with a series of personal tragedies. Hersal had already died, succumbing to food poisoning in 1926 at the age of sixteen. As the years passed, several other close family members died, including her husband Matt in the mid-1930s, her older sister Lillie, and her brother George, Jr., who was tragically run down by a Chicago streetcar in 1928. George's death ended what had been a successful musical collaboration, and Wallace was left without his expert guidance.

Wallace, who moved to Detroit in 1929 and settled on that city's east side, now channeled her energies into her family and her faith. While working as both nurse and choir director/organist at Detroit's Leland Baptist Church, she also served as director of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses beginning in the 1930s.; she also wrote gospel choral music. In the early 1950s she also took in the three orphaned children of her niece, Hociel Thomas, also a blues singer.

Rediscovered during Folk Music Revival

Occasional shows at local nightclubs kept Wallace from total obscurity. She recorded occasionally, traveling to Mercury's Chicago studio to join Albert Ammons in a oneday recording session to lay down "Bedroom Blues" in September of 1945, and rejoining Louis Armstrong in 1946, on the Circle and Riverside labels. A 1959 record on Detroit's Fine Arts label convinced friends that her talent was still strong, and they encouraged her to overcome her religious concerns about singing the "Devil's music" and join the growing Folk/Blues festival circuit. In 1966, at the urging of friend and fellow Texan Victoria Spivey, Wallace recorded a series of duets released as Sippie Wallace and Victoria Spivey, and performed as part of the American Folk Blues Festival during its European tour. Her strong, earthy sound—Wallace was able to sing over her backup band without the aid of a microphone—was a new sound to younger fans raised on more sophisticated jazz mixes, and together with Spivey, Wallace soon became a popular performer in the United States as well. Her European tour marked the start of Wallace's revival.

Many performances followed, as audiences responded to what New York Times writer Jon Pareles dubbed her "earthy and self-assertive" style. 1971 found Wallace on tour with singer Bonnie Raitt who had recorded two of Wallace's songs—the popular "Mighty Tight Woman" and "Women Be Wise, Don't Advertise Your Man"—on her debut album and one more—"You Got to Know How" on her second album. In 1976 Wallace wowed audiences at Ann Arbor, Michigan's Folk and Blues Festival and a year later performed for the first time at New York's Lincoln Center. In 1980 Wallace returned to New York and was featured at Lincoln Center's salute to prominent women of the blues. At 81 years of age, she was the oldest participant. In 1983 she was honored by both her adopted city of Detroit with "Sippie Wallace Day" and by her state as she was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame. 1985 marked her first return to a Texas stage in 63 years when she performed at the Austin Music Festival.

During her revival Wallace made several recordings. In 1966 she recorded the solo project Sippie Wallace Sings the Blues for the Danish Storyville label. She lay down several blues tracks with the Otis Spann Jim Kweskin Jug Band in 1967, although these session would not be released until the early 1990s by Drive Archive as Mighty Tight Woman. With Raitt's help, Wallace signed with Atlantic and recorded Sippie. With backing vocals by Raitt, the album was nominated for a 1983 Grammy award for best traditional blues and earned the W.C. Handy Award for best blues album of 1983 the following year. In 1995 Document records released a two-volume Complete Recorded Works, which encompasses the years 1924 through the late 1940s.

In the 1970s Wallace's performances were curtailed due to failing health. She suffered a stroke in 1970 that left her temporarily wheelchair-bound and forced her to end her stint as organist of the Leland Baptist Church, but recovered sufficiently to tour with Raitt the following year. In 1983-84 she traveled to Germany to tour with pianist Axel Zwingenberger, returning to that country in the spring of 1986. Despite her failing health, her concerts were highly acclaimed. Fortunately for her fans, many of these performances were recorded, because they would be Wallace's lasting legacy to the blues. Following a concert in Mainz, Germany, in March, she suffered a severe stroke and returned home to Detroit. Wallace passed away on November 1, 1986, her 88th birthday.

Among the top female blues vocalists of her era, Wallace ranked with Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, and Bessie Smith. Most often compared to Rainey, whom she claimed was a strong influence, Wallace's earthy style was uniquely her own: a combination of several elements, including southwestern rolling-bass honky-tonk and the Chicago-based "shouting moan" blues. Her vocal abilities—her strong, smooth voice and excellent articulation, the mournful slides that would become her trademark, her ability to wring a myriad of emotions from a few simple lyrical phrases, and her theatrical sense of timing—gave her music an emotional depth unique in blues performance. In addition, her strong, assertive, even bawdy manner made her music a rallying cry for female audiences, while her religious upbringing gave the good-natured Wallace the perseverance to weather life's ups and downs with grace and dignity. Throughout her long career, Wallace commanded respect, both on stage and off.

Books

Chilton, John, Who's Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street, 4th edition, Da Capo Press, 1985.

Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 1, Gale, 1992.

Davis, Angela Y., Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Pantheon Books, 1998.

Harrision, Daphne Duval, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Hine, Darlene Clark, editor, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Carlson, 1993.

Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 2: 1986-1990, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.

Periodicals

Detroit Free Press Magazine, September 16, 1979.

New York Times, November 4, 1986.

Online

"Sippie Wallace," Red Hot Jazz Web site,http://www.redhotjazz.com/ (December 6, 2003).

"Wallace, Beulah Thomas (Sippie)," Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles (July 23, 2002).

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Wallace, Sippie 1898-1986

Sippie Wallace 1898-1986

Blues singer, songwriter, pianist, organist

At a Glance

Selected discography

Sources

Sippie Wallace, The Texas Nightingale, was one of the major blues artists of the 1920s, whose renown as a performer carried well into the 1980s. Wallace was respected as both a blues singer and songwriter. Jon Pareles in the New York Times described such original songs as Mighty Tight Woman and Women Be Wisewhich found new audiences with younger music listeners in the 1970sas earthy and self-assertive blues songs. She is best remembered, however, as one of the foremost interpreters of the blues. Paul Oliver in Jazz on Record called Wallace one of the major singers in the Classic blues idiom. Possessing a mellow and tuneful voice, [she] had the qualities of shading and inflection in her singing that marked the classic blues artist.

One of Wallaces specialties was the shout, a precursor to the modern blues, in which the singer often repeats two lines of a song, and improvises a third. Wallace, who frequently sang without a microphone, was influenced by blues great Ma Rainey, yet developed a style all her own. A contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz wrote: In her earliest work she attempted to project a vocal weightiness similar to that of Ma Rainey. Later she sang in a manner better suited to the lighter, prettier qualities of her voice, which may be heard to advantage on [the album] Im a Mighty Tight Woman. Wallace composed most of her own songs, which are notable for the shapeliness and dignity of their melodies.

Wallace learned music in her fathers Baptist church in Houston, Texas, where she played the organ and sang gospel music. (She was nicknamed Sippie because, as Pareles quoted her, my teeth were so far apart and I had to sip everything.) Around 1910, she moved with her family to New Orleans, where Sippies brother George W., Jr., a professional musician and composer, lived. The family later returned to Houston, and while she was in her late teens she began performing with traveling tent shows. Wallace learned blues and ragtime music in the shows, in addition to performing in chorus lines and acting in comedy skits. These experiences influenced her contributions as a blues artist. As LeRoi Jones commented in Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Wallace was of a line of distinguished performers who brought a professionalism and theatrical polish to blues that it had never had before.

At a Glance

Original name, Beulah Thomas; born November 1, 1898, in Houston, TX; died November 1, 1986, in Detroit, Ml; daughter of George W., Sr. (a Baptist deacon) and Fanny Thomas; married Frank Seals, c. 1914 (marriage ended c. 1917); married Matt Wallace, c. 1917 (died, c. 1936). Education: Attended high school in Houston.

Performed with traveling tent shows, c. 1916-1920s; moved to Chicago, IL, 1923; recorded with Okeh Records, Chicago, 1923-27; moved to Detroit, Ml, 1929; Leland Baptist Church, Detroit, organist and singer, 1929-1970s; National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, Chicago, director, beginning mid-1930s; played at folk and blues festivals in the United States and Europe, 1966-1980s.

In the 1920s, Wallace gained a national reputation as a recording artist, working with Okeh Records in Chicago. She recorded a number of solo albums, and also worked with other jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. She continued theatrical touring in the 1920s, and frequently worked with another brother, Hersal, himself a respected jazz pianist. In 1929 Wallace settled in Detroit, where she would live for the rest of her life. In the 1930s she became active again in gospel music, and played the organ and sang for the Leland Baptist Church. Wallace only occasionally recorded in the 1940s through early 1960s.

Wallace revived her blues career in the mid-1960s at the urging of fellow blues singer Victoria Spivey. In the autumn of 1966 Wallace traveled to Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, and throughout the rest of the 1960s frequently performed at various blues and jazz festivals in the United States. Visiting Europe in 1966, Wallace astonished by the breadth of her singing and a delivery recalling Bessie Smith, noted Oliver. The same year, her album Sippie Wallace Sings the Blues likewise demonstrated she still had her touch. A contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz remarked: The importance of the present disc is that she can still sing these blues. Her wide range of material and masterful reinterpretations are clearly shown in the efforts ImaMighty Tight Woman,Shorty George Blues, and Special Delivery Blues.

Singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt broadened interest in Wallaces music by featuring two of the blueswomans songs on Raitts 1971 debut album. Wallace toured and recorded with Raitt in the 1970s and 1980s, while continuing to perform on her own. In 1980 Wallace was featured at New York Citys Avery Fisher Hall in a salute to prominent blueswomen. New York Times Magazine contributor Ariel Swartley said that Wallace, the shows oldest participant at 81, offered her own, still-fresh remedies for heart ache. Swartley commented on Wallaces popularity with a new generation of music lovers. Its one of the programs bittersweet ironies that, of all the performers, its probably the aging Sippie Wallace whos best known to audiences under 30. And yet it shouldnt be surprising that a young audience appreciated herthe blues, after all, is the root of both jazz and rock and roll.

Selected discography

(With C. Williams) Caldonia Blues, Okeh, 1924.

Special Delivery Blues, Okeh, 1926.

The Flood Blues, Okeh, 1927.

Im a Mighty Tight Woman, Victor, 1929.

Bedroom Blues, Mercury, 1945.

(With L. B. Montgomery and R. Sykes) Sippie Wallace

Sings the Blues, Storyville, 1966.

Sippie, Atlantic, 1982.

Sources

Books

Harris, Sheldon, Blues Whos Who, Arlington House, 1979.

Jones, LeRoi, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Morrow, 1963.

Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.

McCarthy, Albert, Alun Morgan, Paul Oliver, and Max Harrison, Jazz on Record: A Critical Guide to the First 50 Years, 1917-1967, Hanover Books, 1968.

Periodicals

New York Times, November 4, 1986.

New York Times Magazine, June 29, 1980.

Michael E. Mueller

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Wallace, Sippie

Sippie Wallace

Singer, songwriter, pianist, organist

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Sippie Wallace, TheTexas Nightingale, was oneof the major blues artists of the 1920s, whose renown as a performer carried well into the 1980s. Wallace was respected as both a blues singer and songwriter. Jon Pareles in the New York Times described her original songs Mighty Tight Woman and Women Be Wisewhich found a new audience with younger listeners in the 1970sas earthy and self-assertive blues songs. She is best remembered, however, as one of the foremost interpreters of the blues. Paul Oliver in Jazz on Record called Wallace one of the major singers in the Classic blues idiom. Possessing a mellow and tuneful voice, [she] had the qualities of shading and inflection in her singing that marked the classic blues artist.

One of Wallaces specialties was the shout, a precursor to the modern blues, in which the singer repeats two lines of a song, and improvises a third. Wallace, who frequently sang without a microphone, was influenced by blues great Ma Rainey, yet developed a style all her own. A contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz wrote: In her earliest work she attempted to project a vocal weightiness similar to that of Ma Rainey. Later she sang in a manner better suited to the lighter, prettier qualities of her voice, which may be heard to advantage on [the album] Im a Mighty Tight Woman . Wallace composed most of her own songs, which are notable for the shapeliness and dignity of their melodies.

Wallace learned music in her fathers Baptist church in Houston, where she played the organ and sang gospel music. She was nicknamed Sippie because, as Pareles quoted her, my teeth were so far apart and I had to sip everything. Around 1910 she moved with her family to New Orleans, where Wallaces brother George W. Jr., a professional musician and composer, lived. The family later returned to Houston and while Wallace was in her late teens she began performing with traveling tent shows. She learned blues and ragtime in the shows, in addition to performing in chorus lines and acting in comedy skits. These experiences influenced her contributions as a blues artist. As LeRoi Jones commented in Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Wallace was of a line of distinguished performers who brought a professionalism and theatrical polish to blues that it had never had before.

In the 1920s Wallace gained a national reputation as a recording artist, working with Okeh Records in Chicago. She recorded a number of solo albums and also worked with jazz greats Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. She continued theatrical touring in the 1920s and frequently worked with another brother, Hersal, a respected jazz pianist. In 1929 Wallace settled in Detroit. In the 1930s she became active again in gospel

For the Record

Born Beulah Thomas, November 1, 1898, in Houston, TX; died November 1, 1986, in Detroit, MI; daughter of George W., Sr. (a Baptist deacon) and Fanny Thomas; married Frank Seals c. 1914 (marriage ended c. 1917); married Matt Wallace c. 1917 (deceased c. 1936).

Performed with traveling tent shows, c. 1916-1920s; recorded with Okeh Records, Chicago, 1923-27; organist and singer, Leland Baptist Church, Detroit, 1929-1970s; director of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, Chicago, beginning mid-1930s; played at folk and blues festivals in the United States and Europe, 1966-1980s.

music, playing the organ and singing for the Leland Baptist Church. Wallace recorded only ocassionally in the 1940s through early 1960s.

Wallace revived her blues career in the mid-1960s at the urging of fellow blues singer Victoria Spivey. In the autumn of 1966 Wallace traveled to Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, and throughout the rest of the 1960s frequently performed at various blues and jazz festivals in the United States. Visiting Europe in 1966, Wallace astonished by the breadth of her singing and a delivery recalling Bessie Smith, noted Oliver. The same year, her album Sippie Wallace Sings the Blues likewise demonstrated that she still had her touch. A contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz remarked: The importance of the present disc is that she can still sing these blues. Her wide range of material and masterful reinterpretations are clearly shown in the efforts Im a Mighty Tight Woman, Shorty George Blues,and Special Delivery Blues.

Singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt broadened interest in Wallaces music when she featured two of the blueswomans songs on her 1971 debut album. Wallace toured and recorded with Raitt in the 1970s and eighties while continuing to perform on her own. In 1980 Wallace was featured at New York Citys Avery Fisher Hall in a salute to prominent blueswomen. New York Times Magazine contributor Ariel Swartley said that Wallace, at 81 the shows oldest participant, offered her own, still-fresh remedies for heartache. Swartley commented on Wallaces popularity with a new generation of music lovers. Its one of the programs bittersweet ironies that, of all the performers, its probably the aging Sippie Wallace whos best known to audiences under 30. And yet it shouldnt be surprising that a young audience appreciated herthe blues, after all, is the root of both jazz and rock and roll.

Selected discography

(With C. Williams) Caldonia Blues, Okeh, 1924.

Special Delivery Blues, Okeh, 1926.

The Flood Blues, Okeh, 1927.

Im a Mighty Tight Woman, Victor, 1929.

Bedroom Blues, Mercury, 1945.

(With L. B. Montgomery and R. Sykes) Sippie Wallace Sings the Blues, Storyville, 1966.

Sippie, Atlantic, 1982.

Sources

Books

Harris, Sheldon, Blues Whos Who, Arlington House, 1979.

Jones, LeRoi, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Morrow, 1963.

McCarthy, Albert, Alun Morgan, Paul Oliver, and Max Harrison, Jazz on Record: A Critical Guide to the First 50 Years, 1917-1967, Hanover Books, 1968.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld, Macmillan, 1988.

Periodicals

New York Times, November 4, 1986.

New York Times Magazine, June 29, 1980.

Michael E. Mueller

Cite this article
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  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wallace, Sippie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wallace, Sippie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wallace-sippie

"Wallace, Sippie." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wallace-sippie