Thomas, Hersal (1910–1926)

By: James Head

Type: Biography

Published: December 7, 2006

Updated: July 14, 2017

Hersal Thomas, child prodigy pianist, was born in Houston in 1910. Hersal was one of thirteen children of George and Fanny Thomas. George, Sr., was a deacon at Shiloh Baptist Church, where his children often sang in the choir and played the piano and organ. The Thomas family was exceptionally talented musically. Hersal's older brother George Washington Thomas Jr. was a publisher and composer whose tunes included "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" and "Muscle Shoals Blues." In addition to composing, George was an accomplished pianist who taught Hersal to play. Although George was twenty-five years older than his youngest brother, Hersal's skills were so exceptional that he quickly surpassed his brother in musical accomplishment. The most famous member of the Thomas family, however, was Hersal's older sister, the sensational blues singer Beulah "Sippie" Wallace.

Hersal's life was intertwined with Sippie's. When he was a small child, he performed with her on Houston street corners for tips. In 1915 Hersal and Sippie moved to New Orleans to live with their brother George. They performed in New Orleans clubs and worked theaters throughout the South. In 1923 the two moved to Chicago to work with their brother George and their niece, blues singer Hociel Thomas. Although Hersal was still a teenager, his musical talents quickly became much in demand around the city. His performances of “The Fives,” the groundbreaking boogie-woogie song that Hersal and his brother George had published in 1922, inspired such Chicago pianists as Jimmy Yancey, Meade “Lux” Lewis, and Albert Ammons. In addition to playing in local venues, he toured with Louis Armstrong, Joe "King" Oliver, and Sippie. Hersal also backed his niece, Hociel, on most of her recordings. In 1925, at the age of fifteen, he recorded "Hersal Blues" and the piano classic "Suitcase Blues." At the age of sixteen, while performing at Penny's Pleasure Inn in Detroit, he contracted food poisoning and died on July 3, 1926.

David Dicaire, Blues Singers (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1999). Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3d ed. (New York: Muze, 1998). 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, Subequent History, and Continuing Development," The Boogie Woogie Foundation (, accessed December 3, 2011.


  • Music
  • Genres (Blues)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans

Time Periods:

  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s


  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

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

James Head, “Thomas, Hersal,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 18, 2021,

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December 7, 2006
July 14, 2017

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