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WALLACE, BEULAH THOMAS [SIPPIE]

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WALLACE, BEULAH THOMAS [SIPPIE] (1898–1986). Sippie Wallace, blues singer, also known as the Texas Nightingale, one of thirteen children of Fanny and George W. Thomas, Sr., was born Beulah Thomas Wallace in Houston on November 1, 1898. Her father was a deacon at Shiloh Baptist Church. Beulah was nicknamed Sippie in grammar school because, she once said, "My teeth were so far apart I had to sip everything." As a child she began singing and playing the organ at her father's church. But on summer nights she would steal away from her home, follow the ragtime sounds of the traveling tent-show bands, and listen to the blues singers through a flap in the canvas tent. On one of her many visits, some of the performers asked her to fill an opening in the chorus line, and her career began.

As the tent shows expanded and grew more elaborate, Beulah found more opportunities to perform. When one of the shows moved from Houston to Dallas, she traveled with it. By the mid-1910s she was acting in plays, dancing in the chorus line, doing comedy routines, serving as a snake charmer's assistant, and singing solo ballads. She moved to New Orleans with her younger brother, Hersal Thomas (an exceptional pianist), to work with their older brother, George W. Thomasqv, who was a pianist, songwriter, and publisher. Jazz and ragtime were flourishing, and Sippie found herself surrounded by young musicians, many of whom later became legends. Rehearsals in the Thomas house included King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Clarence Williams, and Johnny Dodds. Apparently, while in New Orleans, she married Frank Seals, but the couple soon divorced. She later married Matt Wallace.

In 1923 she and Hersal moved to Chicago and, with the help of her brother George, she met Ralph Peer, then general manager of OKeh Records. Three months after her first record was pressed with OKeh, she was on top of the black record industry, a star with a national reputation. Her “Shorty George Blues” sold more than 100,000 copies. Promoted as the “Texas Nightingale,” she recorded more than forty songs for OKeh from 1924 to 1927 with such sidemen as Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Clarence Williams, and others. Her songs included “Lazy Man Blues,” penned by her brother Hersal, and her own composition, “Special Delivery Blues.” Such classics as "Mighty Tight Woman" and "Woman Be Wise," spoke with earthy directness about love and relationships.

With the onslaught of the Great Depression and changing musical tastes, however, Wallace’s career waned. She also suffered a series of personal tragedies. Her younger brother Hersal died of food poisoning in 1926. Several years later, her brother George was killed in a streetcar accident, and during the mid-1930s her husband died. The loss of family as well as her musical collaborators prompted her to settle in Detroit and return to singing gospel music. She worked as a nurse and was the organist and choir director at Leland Baptist Church. She also became director of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses later in the 1930s. She did occasional performances in local clubs and a few recordings; she recorded with Albert Ammons in 1945 and with Louis Armstrong in 1946. After the death of her niece, Hociel Thomas, in 1952, Wallace took care of Hociel’s child.

The blues revival of the 1960s, however, began a resurgence of Wallace’s career. Victoria Spivey, another Texas artist, persuaded Wallace to return to performing. Together they recorded a series of duets in 1966 and released the album Sippie Wallace and Victoria Spivey on the Spivey label in 1970. The "tough-minded" lyrics of some of Wallace's songs transcended the blues era in which they were written and appealed to feminists of the 1970s, when a young singer named Bonnie Raitt initiated renewed interest in Wallace. Raitt's debut album in 1971 included two Wallace songs, and during the 1970s and 1980s the two women recorded and toured together. In 1977 and 1980 she performed at the Lincoln Center in New York and subsequently made an album, Sippie, in 1982 (Atlantic Records). She wrote seven of the ten songs on the release, which was nominated for a Grammy. In 1985 the eighty-six-year-old Wallace appeared at the annual Austin Music Festival in Manor, her first Texas performance since her departure more than sixty years earlier.

Sippie Wallace is said to have possessed "qualities of shading and inflection in her singing that marked the classic blues artist." She was known as the last of the blues shouters and ranked among such blues greats as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and Alberta Hunter. She died in Detroit on November 1, 1986, and was buried there in Trinity Cemetery. She was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2003 she was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Wallace is also a member of the Houston Institute for Culture's Texas Music Hall of Fame.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

John Chilton, Who's Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street (London: Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1970; American ed., New York and Philadelphia: Chilton, 1972; 4th ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1985). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). Houston Post, November 3, 1986. Jazz on Record: A Critical Guide (London: Hutchinson, 1960; rev. ed., London: Hanover, 1968). Newsweek, November 17, 1987. New York Times, November 4, 1986. “Wallace, Sippie,” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2005, Encyclopedia.com (http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Sippie_Wallace.aspx#1-1G2:3435000203-full), accessed December 3, 2011.

Donna P. Parker

Citation

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

Donna P. Parker, "WALLACE, BEULAH THOMAS [SIPPIE]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwaal), accessed August 02, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 29, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.