The Nickel: A Musical History of the Fifth Ward, Part 2

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[Note: Part 1 is here, and the Eating Our Words entry that inspired this series is here.]

To tell the story of music in the Fifth Ward with anything like the sweep it deserves, we will have to go way back to the 19th century.

On a November day in 1898, Beulah Thomas was born to Fanny Bradley and George W. Thomas, a deacon at Fifth Ward's Shiloh Baptist Church. Thanks to a childhood lisp, her parents would call her Sippie, and a marriage to a man named Matt Wallace would give her the name she would enter history with: Sippie Wallace.

After she worked the tent-show circuit out of Houston for a few teenaged years, the 1920s found Wallace resettled in Chicago, where she often performed with her piano prodigy of a kid brother - Hersal Thomas, as well as her older brother George. Meanwhile, she was also recording with New Orleans jazz pioneers like Kid Oliver and Louis Armstrong and earning the nickname "The Texas Nightingale."

Hersal's career was likewise off to a sensational start. Before he had reached adulthood, he had released both "Suitcase Blues" and "The Fives," two records co-written with his brother George and generally recognized by subsequent masters such as Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis with laying the ground-work for boogie-woogie, a piano style that in large part bridged the gap between ragtime and rock and roll.

In 1929, Pinetop Smith's "Pinetop's Boogie-Woogie," which owed much to Hersal's innovations, would sweep the nation, but by that time Thomas would be dead. He passed away at 17 in Detroit under circumstances that remain murky to this day. (Food poisoning is often cited.)

Wallace's career as a queen of the classic blues continued into the '40s, when she retired into the bosom of a Detroit church. Decades later, she came roaring back in the blues boom of the 1960s - Bonnie Raitt cited her as a key influence, Wallace made the festival circuit, and eventually appeared on Late Night with David Letterman.

In 1985, she made a triumphant homecoming at the Juneteenth Blues Festival in Hermann Park. Then in her late 80s, Wallace was still able to sing her risqué Roaring '20s numbers like "I'm a Mighty Tight Woman" with gusto and aplomb. She passed away in Detroit on her 88th birthday in 1986. The above clip is from the 1980s, in a San Francisco bar, Wallace recreating the kind of bluesy jazz she once made with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and her forgotten prodigy of a little brother:

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