About Sippie

You probably know Sippie from her work with Bonnie Raitt and songs she wrote such as “Women Be Wise,” and “Mighty Tight Woman.” She also wrote “Up the Country Blues” (yes, as recorded by Canned Heat in the 1960′s), and “Caldonia Blues” (yes, the song that Louis Jordan sort of stole and reworked but that’s a long story for another day) during her first star turn as one of the most famous of the “Classic Blues” singers of the 1920’s.
The Classic Blues records were the first made by African-Americans for African-Americans, and the women who sang the songs – Mamie Smith, Sippie, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters among others – were the first to make hit records and become, in every sense of the phrase, cross-over “pop stars.” They opened the door and paved the way for all who followed. From 1923 through 1929 Sippie recorded hit after hit, many of songs she had written. She befriended and recorded with Louis Armstrong, Sydney Bechet, and Joe “King” Oliver, among many others. She caroused with Fats Waller in New York City and traveled the country in her own Pullman railroad car on the TOBA circuit. Lines of fans waited for box offices and record stores to open.
Sippie was born Beulah Thomas in Houston’s burgeoning Fifth Ward on November 1, 1898, the eighth of George Thomas Sr. and Fannie Bradley Thomas’s thirteen children. Her parents helped to build one of the Ward’s largest churches, First Shiloh Baptist, and her father served as one of its original Deacons. Sippie learned to sing there, and by age 7 was also playing the church organ. She made her secular debut in the 3rd Grade when recruited by her elementary school voice coach to perform in a vaudeville skit that was so popular it toured schools around the city.
At age 11 Sippie became enamored of a tent show that set up in her neighborhood. A year later she convinced an aunt in Galveston to cover for her so she could spend the summer touring with it through eastern Texas. She continued with it for several summers, first as a member of the chorus and then as a soloist in the oleo. She also began to sing and on a house party circuit in and around Houston, anchored by regular appearances at her sister’s house, a for-profit “good time” house and safe house for travelling Pullman Porters. Sippie’s niece Hocile often accompanied her, and when he was a little older her younger brother Hersal sometimes performed with them too. Sippie married Mat Wallace in late 1922, shortly before her mother Fannie died.
Sippie’s older brother, George W. Thomas Jr., was a successful songwriter and publisher who had relocated from New Orleans to Chicago in 1920. On his frequent business trips to the South, which always included stops at home in Houston, he told his siblings he would love for them to join him there. Sippie finally relented and moved to Chicago in the early fall of 1923, not because she had aspirations to be a blues singer, but because she thought George lonely and craving the company of family. Mat would follow later.
George had established a solid relationship with Okeh Records after the label recorded several of his tunes, most notably “Muscle Shoals Blues,” which had become an international hit. His primary contact was Ralph Peer, General Manager of the label’s Race Records Division. In October of 1923 Peer brought Okeh’s mobile recording laboratory to Chicago and asked George if he knew any women who could sing the Blues. George said that his sister had just arrived from Houston, and that she could surely sing.
They auditioned for Peer in George’s office, Sippie singing while George played “Muscle Shoals Blues.” Peer was ecstatic, and on October 26, 1923, Sippie recorded “Shorty George Blues” and “Up the Country Blues.” In mid-November Peer sent a letter to George saying they wanted to release the recordings if only Sippie signed an exclusive 5-year contract. Sippie signed, the record was released in December – Okeh dubbed her “The Texas Nightingale” – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sippie was 31 years old when the onset of the Depression in 1929 almost killed the record business and marked the end of the Classic Blues Era. She had never particularly enjoyed recording and lived out of a suitcase for too many years. She would make a few more records but mostly live quietly in Detroit, the city Mat fled to in 1925 when Chicago mobsters began chasing him for gambling debts. When both Mat and George died within months of each other in 1937, Sippie blamed herself for failing the Lord by singing the blues, and determined never to sing them again. Until Ron Harwood found her in 1965…