According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “there are no second acts in American lives.” Clearly, F. didn’t know f—, and he certainly didn’t know 1920s Blues singer and writer, “Sippie” Wallace.
Like the more well-known Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace was one of the most popular ladies who sang the Blues — in an era and genre in which women routinely outsold their male counterparts. Her career spanned seven decades and had a significant impact on two distinct blues movements separated by half a century. She was also unique among the ladies who sang the blues as she wrote her own lyrics, giving a voice to the female experience in more ways than one. “There isn’t anything I sing about that hasn’t happened to me,” said Sippie, the author of such songs as “After I Was Loved My Eyes Flew Open Like an Electric Light”. Almost a century ago, Wallace sang about things that wouldn’t be discussed at American dinner tables until Monica Lewinsky hobbled on to the scene.
Most people I meet aren’t aware that things were not so prim and proper back in the day. Take just a couple of Blues songs, like Cleo Gibson’s “I’ve Got Ford Engine Movements in My Hips”; “I Let My Daddy Do THAT” by Hattie Hart; Margaret Carter’s understandable plea, “I Want Plenty Grease in My Frying Pan”; and Clara Smith’s lament, “Ain’t Got Nobody to Grind My Coffee”. (We’ve all been there.) Hell, as a teen back in the permissive 70s I was actually shocked when I heard Al Miller’s tragic tale of woe, “I Found Your Keyhole Baby (But My Key Just Won’t Go In)”. And when it comes to dames, they don’t get much dame-er – or game-er – than Sippie.
Beulah “Sippie” Thomas was one of 13 (yikes!) children, born November 1, 1898 in Plum Bayou, Arkansas – a place no doubt whose name sounds much more pleasantly pastoral than the reality. (Coincidentally, eighty-eight years later she died on November 1st as well.) Beulah got her nickname because she had almost no teeth until she was 3 and had to sip everything she ate. When she was still a child, the Thomases moved their weary loins and big brood to Houston where Sippie sang and played piano in the church where her father was deacon. But like many preachers’ children before them, in the evenings the children would sneak out to tent shows. By her mid-teens, Sippie and her brothers Hersal and George were playing and singing the Blues in tent shows throughout Texas
Sippie got herself a solid following, and in 1915 she and George moved to New Orleans. (By the way, what’s the most dangerous thing to be? One of Sippie’s brothers! Hersal died of food poisoning at the tender age of sixteen, while George would die after being hit by a streetcar.) Two years later the woman who penned the ditty “A Man for Every Day of the Week” got married to Matt Wallace.
While in New Orleans Mrs. Wallace met Jazz giants like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong ,who were friends of her brother George. Before long Sippie went on the road and was in great demand as “The Texas Nightingale” on the Theater Owners Booking Association black vaudeville circuit. (Its acronym, TOBA, had performers describing it as “Tough on Black Asses.”)
In 1923 she went to Chicago’s toddlin’ town and began performing in the cafes and cabarets. In 1923 she became an overnight success when she recorded her first record, “Up the Country”, which sold more than 100,000 copies in the first three months. Sippie went on to record over forty songs between 1923 -29. In addition to her great women-centric lyrics, her records featured her pals who just happened to be the era’s best jazz musicians; in addition to King and “Satchmo”, her sidemen included people like Clarence Williams, Johnny Dodds and Sidney Bechet.
The bona fide Blues star’s most popular recordings included “Special Delivery Blues” with Louis Armstrong, “Bedroom Blues” (written by George and Hersal Thomas), “I’m So Glad I’m a Brownskin”,“Mighty Tight Woman” and arguably her most famous tune, “Women Be Wise” – a warning about keeping your mouth shut when it comes to your man’s bedroom prowess.
Successful as she was, in 1929 Sippie moved to Detroit and left show business in the early 1930s when the Blues craze died down, as did several relatives. She got religion and stopped doing secular music, concentrating on church music. But thirty-some years later Sippie had her Fitzgerald-poo-pooed second act. She launched a comeback in 1966 with fellow Texan and longtime friend, Victoria Spivey. She followed up an album with Spivey with Sippie Wallace Sings the Blues and Women Be Wise.
But, just as things were looking up, Sippie suffered a massive stroke in 1969. “It was six months before she could walk or talk,” recalled her manager, “but the first thing she did was to play the piano.” This Blues badass was not about to let a little thing like that stop her. “If I was in the middle of dying,” said Wallace, “and someone said, ‘Sippie, sing me a song,’ I’d stop dying to sing that song.” She was still in a wheelchair in 1972 when popular singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt heard of her idol’s recovery and urged that she be invited to perform at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival.
After majoring in African studies at Radcliffe, Bonnie Raitt had become a fixture on the folk/blues scene in Cambridge coffeehouses. In 1968, an album in a London record store featuring a photo of Sippie caught Bonnie’s eye. “I saw the rhinestone glasses and the tiger-striped vest and said to myself, ‘This woman really knows how to dress.'” (I would have fallen in love with her in that outfit, too. I get girl crushy feelings just thinking about it.) The two women met and really hit it off, culminating in the trans-generational soul sisters’ duet on Sippie’s Women Be Wise. In 1971 Bonnie recorded her own rendition of “Women Be Wise” and Wallace toured and recorded with her throughout the 1970s and 1980s, while also performing on her own. Bonnie helped Sippie score a recording deal with Atlantic Records and recorded an eponymous album that featured Raitt and was nominated for a Grammy in 1983 and won a W.C. Handy Award for “Best Blues Album” in 1984.
Bonnie really related to her friend’s twin love of music…and men. “Sippie has always seen the struggle of the sexes with a sense of humor and compassion,” explained Bonnie. “She knows that freedom is the name of the game even though women have always had to answer to men.”
Sippie died on November 1st 1986, but her legacy lives on. Thanks to Ms. Wallace, millions of women like me know not to “Advertise our man” and are far better off for it. Continue reading Sippie Wallace: A Mighty Tight Woman