Wallace, Sippie (1898–1986)
Wallace, Sippie (1898–1986)
African-American blues singer and pianist . Name variations: Beulah Belle Wallace. Born Beulah Belle Thomas on November 1, 1898, in Houston, Texas; died in November 1986 in Alameda, California; daughter of George Thomas and Fanny Thomas; coached in music by older brother George Thomas, Jr.; married Frank Seals (divorced); married Matthew Wallace.
Began singing in church choir as a pre-teen; released "Jack O' Diamond Blues" (1926); recording career ended (1929); toured Europe on folk-blues festival circuit (1966); sang at Lincoln Center in New York City (1977).
Sippie Wallace was born Beulah Belle Thomas in 1898, the fourth of thirteen children in a religious Houston, Texas, family. Her musical abilities were recognized early on when she sang and played piano in her family's Baptist church. Wallace was never educated much past elementary school, but her older brother George Thomas, Jr., and her older sister Lillie Thomas encouraged her talent and taught her how to write songs and sing. When she was 15, George moved to New Orleans to begin his musical career, and the attractive young Sippie followed him. They settled in the Storyville district where George's friends included the up-and-coming entertainer Louis Armstrong.
By the time she was 20, Sippie had endured a short and miserable marriage in New Orleans to Frank Seals, and her parents had passed away. Wallace returned to Houston to live with her brothers and sisters, but had not lost her desire to perform. She joined the tent shows in Houston on the Theatre Owner's Booking Association (TOBA) circuit, serving as an assistant and maid to the snakedancer Madame Dante and hoping for a break. Her talent soon earned "The Texas Nightingale" a place singing with small bands as she traveled around Texas. While she was still in her early 20s, her brother George, by then a successful composer, sent for her to join him in Chicago. She moved there with her young teenage brother Hersal Thomas, a piano prodigy, and her niece Hociel Thomas , who also wanted to be a blues singer.
Boosted by George's influence and position in the recording industry, the three talented Thomas siblings soon made a name for themselves. Sippie's dynamic recordings of "Shorty George" and "Up the Country Blues" outshone even George's 1922 hit "Muscle Shoals Blues." Her first recording reportedly sold 100,000 copies, a testament to the popularity of her singing style, which was a mix of Southwestern rolling honky-tonk and Chicago shouting moan. Sippie also wrote her own blues songs, drawing on personal experiences. Her "Jack O' Diamond"—the recording which featured Louis Armstrong—was born out of financial troubles caused by her second husband, the handsome gambler Matthew Wallace. Sippie Wallace's recording and stage career soon had her both headlining in traveling TOBA shows and working in studios. In the mid-1920s, she and her husband Matt, with Hociel and Hersal, who had made records themselves, moved to Detroit.
Then at the peak of her career, Wallace suffered a cluster of personal tragedies. In 1925, her mother Lillie died, in June 1926 Hersal succumbed to food poisoning, and in 1928 George was fatally struck down by a Chicago streetcar. The brilliant Thomas trio collaboration was over, and Wallace stopped recording the blues. In 1929, she signed a contract with Victor Records and put out a few strong recordings, including "Mighty Tight Woman." However, the Great Depression, shifts in musical tastes, and the lack of her brother's guidance all worked against her, and by 1932 she had faded into anonymity. Over the next 30 years or so, she focused her efforts on her family and worked in her church as a nurse and part of the choir.
Wallace made two recordings, in 1945 and 1959, which proved she had not lost her gift for the blues, and in the late 1960s she was convinced by a friend to take advantage of the folkblues revival that was then taking hold. Wallace toured Europe in 1966 and performed to enthusiastic young audiences. In the early 1970s, younger artists such as Bonnie Raitt helped promote interest in the singing style of Wallace and others like her. In 1977, at age 80, Sippie Wallace sang her powerful brand of blues at New York's Lincoln Center. Even age and arthritis could not stop her from singing in Germany only six months before her death in 1986.
Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada