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THOMAS, GEORGE WASHINGTON, JR. [CLAY CUSTER]

THOMAS, GEORGE WASHINGTON, JR. [CLAY CUSTER] (ca. 1883–1930). George Washington Thomas, Jr., composer, publisher, and boogie-woogie pianist, also known as Clay Custer; was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, about 1883. He was the oldest of George and Fanny Thomas's thirteen children. Thomas grew up in Houston, where his father was a deacon at Shiloh Baptist Church. The Thomas family was exceptionally musically-talented. The children, including George, Jr., often sang in their father's church choir, and they learned to play the piano and organ at an early age. When George, Jr., got a little older, he worked as a pit-pianist in local Houston theaters and soon became known as an accomplished musician. Other musically-talented members of the Thomas family included his younger sister, Sippie Wallace, and Bernice "Moanin'" Edwards, who was raised in the Thomas household. George taught his younger brother, Hersal to play the piano. George and Hersal, both pioneers of the boogie-woogie piano style, helped to popularize the blues in Chicago during the 1920s.

In 1914 George became a partner of Clarence Williams, and they formed a publishing business in New Orleans. George soon became successful publishing, composing, and performing in the New Orleans Storyville district, a mecca of blues and jazz music that was also well-known for its red-light activities. The Storyville district attracted exceptionally talented young musicians, including George's friends, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.

After the Storyville district was shut down in 1917, George moved his business to Chicago. In the early 1920s, his younger sister and brother—Sippie and Hersal—joined him. By that time, George had established himself in the city's music business, and his connections enabled him to find work for them in the music industry. George composed an estimated 100 songs, including the popular "Houston Blues," the smash 1922 hit "Muscle Shoals Blues," and the 1916 tune "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues," which is considered the "first twelve-bar blues" song "published with a boogie-woogie bass line." George and Sippie composed several well-known songs, including "Shorty George Blues" and "Underworld Blues." Possibly his best work, however, was composed with Hersal. In 1922 he and Hersal published a classic composition, "The Fives," inspired by the sounds of railroad travel. This song became synonymous with the boogie-woogie style of music played in Chicago during that decade. It was often said that pianists were required to know how to play "The Fives" in order to get work there. George was fatally injured when a Chicago streetcar hit him in 1930. He died in Chicago from his injuries in March, 1930. His daughter, Hociel, was also a very successful blues singer.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Lawrence Cohn, Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). Daphne Duval Harrison, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988). Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3d ed. (New York: Muze, 1998). Dave Oliphant, Texan Jazz (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996). Robert Santelli, Big Book of the Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). Peter J. Silvester, The Story of Boogie-Woogie: A Left Hand Like God (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009). John Tennison, “BOOGIE WOOGIE: Its Origin, Subsequent History, and Continuing Development,” The Boogie Woogie Foundation (http://www.bowofo.org/), accessed December 3, 2011.

James Head

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

James Head, "THOMAS, GEORGE WASHINGTON, JR. [CLAY CUSTER]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fth73), accessed November 28, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on May 29, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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