Sippie Wallace, Lusty-Voiced Blues Singer, Dies in Detroit

Times Staff Writer

Sippie Wallace, one of a rapidly diminishing handful of blues singers who emerged from the bawdy houses and tent shows of the Roaring '20s to sing and play for tens of thousands of ardent fans, has died.

The diminutive woman with the lusty voice had been hospitalized in Detroit after suffering a heart attack earlier this year while she was on a German concert tour.

She died in Detroit on Saturday, her 88th birthday.

Miss Wallace--who smothered herself in feather boas, furs and sequined gowns while belting out her often sinful songs--had two careers.

The first, as a young woman, was singing in saloons throughout America and Europe. The second began just recently, when she was rediscovered by her modern counterpart, Bonnie Raitt. With Raitt as a drawing card, Miss Wallace entertained audiences not yet born when she was in her prime.

Born in Houston as Beulah Thomas, Miss Wallace first heard the blues while fighting for sleep on humid nights in the summer of 1910.

Ragtime Band

She told an interviewer in 1984 that what she heard were the distant sounds of a ragtime band from her bedroom window.

Then 11, she tiptoed from the house and sneaked to the nearby tent show. Through the canvas tent flap she listened to the blues singers and became captivated by a form of music that soon became her calling.

"When Momma went to bed, I would sneak out the window to the tent shows, or leave the door open so she thought I was going to the privy. Lord, I have come a long ways," Wallace said in the interview.

One of 13 children of a Baptist deacon, she learned to sing in a church choir. She recalled that after her mother learned she was not asleep those summer nights, she told her, "If you sing the blues, you'll go to hell."

Instead she went to Dallas.

That was in 1916 with the same tent show she had first heard six years earlier.

There she acted in plays, danced in the chorus, did comedy bits, sang and was the snake charmer's assistant.

By 1925 she was being called the "Texas Nightingale" and made nearly 50 records before the Depression cut deeply into the entertainment industry. She appeared and recorded with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Joe (King) Oliver.

In the late 1930s, after the deaths of her husband and her brother, George--who wrote much of her music--Miss Wallace abandoned the blues and sang gospel music at Detroit churches for the next three decades.

In 1965, she was coaxed back to the stage by music researchers who found that although her voice had grown weaker over the years, her interpretations remained authentic and pure.

Her repertoire included "Suitcase Blues," "Gambler's Blues," "Women Be Wise (Keep Your Mouth Shut, Don't Advertise Your Man)," "Special Delivery Blues" and "Mighty Tight Woman." All are from her 1982 album, "Sippie," which was nominated for a Grammy award.

She often likened the blues with its double-entendres to the gospel music of her youth.

"Blues and gospel, they're all the same," she said. "Where you say 'Jesus' in a gospel song, you just say 'baby' in a blues tune."

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