While Blind Lemon Jefferson is often identified as the Father of the Texas Blues for his pioneering recordings made in 1926, it is every bit as important to acknowledge the lady blues singers that blazed the trail before him, such as the “Texas Nightingale”, Houston’s own Sippie Wallace.
Sippie was born Beulah Bell Thomas on the Bell Bayou near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on November 1, 1898, one of the thirteen children of the musical family of George and Fanny Thomas. The family moved to Houston, Texas, before the turn of the century (her birthplace is often cited as Houston, but the U.S. Census of 1900 suggests Arkansas). She acquired the nickname Sippie in school because her “teeth were so far apart [she] had to sip everything.” Her father was a deacon in the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she sang and played the organ. On summer evenings, she would sneak away with some of her siblings to the tent shows, where she first met the blues, and where she first began singing it when one of the stars asked her to join the chorus. Soon, she was traveling with the shows across the state. Her older brother George W. Thomas gained note as a ragtime musician and composer in New Orleans (and whose daughter Hociel also sang the blues), and she moved there with her younger brother Hersal—also a pianist—to live with him in 1915. There, in 1917, she met and later married Matt Wallace. Like her contemporaries “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s, during which time she earned the sobriquet “The Texas Nightingale”. She moved with her brothers to Chicago in 1923, and not long after made her recording debut for the Okeh record company. That arrangement proved quite lucrative, and she recorded forty-four sides for the company between October of 1923 and May of 1927, some featuring star-studded accompaniments by the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Clarence Williams, and many others backed by brother Hersal. Subsequently, she recorded four sides for Victor in 1929, backed by some members of the Dixieland Jug Blowers and her own piano, of which only two made the cut. She moved to Detroit in 1929, and following the deaths of both her husband and brother George in 1936, she turned from the blues to religion, becoming organist and choir director at the Leland Baptist Church. She made one record with Albert Ammons’ Rhythm Kings for Mercury in 1945, reviving her old “Bedroom Blues”, but kept her back mostly to the blues until 1966, when her friend and fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to make a comeback. Her return was met with success, and she toured the United States and Europe and recorded several albums, particularly influencing young musician Bonnie Raitt. She was one of the last surviving classic female blues singers of the 1920s when she was incapacitated by a stroke in March of 1986. Sippie Wallace died eight months later on her eighty-eighth birthday.
Okeh 8106 was recorded in October of 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. It is Sippie Wallace’s first record and accounts for the entirety of her first recording session. Wallace is accompanied on piano by Eddie Heywood, Sr.
“Shorty George Blues” was composed by Sippie’s brother George and niece Hociel. Fellow Texans Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker later recorded largely unrelelated folk songs under the same title, but the echoes of Wallace’s song can be heard throughout the country blues; the opening verse alone recycled in numerous other blues songs, such as Bo Weavil Jackson’s “You Can’t Keep No Brown”.
Another family affair, Wallace shares the composer’s credit with her brother George W. Thomas for her “Up the Country Blues”, drawing both lyrics and style from the country blues tradition not yet recorded at the time.