Sippie Wallace, 88, the last of the great blues shouters who learned her craft in the traveling tent shows of the South early in the century, died of a heart ailment Nov. 1 at a Detroit hospital.
She was regarded as one of the last living "true blues shouters" still performing her music in its original style, without a microphone. She became an instant star in 1923 as her first records, "Up the Country" and "Shorty George," sold at the rate of 100,000 a month. Called the "Texas Nightingale," she was backed by musicians that included Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Joe (King) Oliver.
Mrs. Wallace was born Beulah Thomas in Houston, one of 13 children of a Baptist deacon. She learned to sing in a church choir, and once said her mother had told her that "if you sing the blues you'd go to hell."
That didn't stop her. "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."
Her nickname came from her grammar school days. "My classmates called me Sippie because my teeth were so far apart and I had to sip everything," she recalled.
Mrs. Wallace first heard the blues on humid summer nights in 1910 when she listened to the distant sounds of a ragtime band of the traveling tent shows from her bedroom window.
When the 1916 version of the tent show came through Houston and headed for Dallas, Wallace went along, acting in plays, dancing in the chorus line, doing comedy routines, singing solo ballads and acting as the snake charmer's assistant.
In 1923, her older brother, pianist-songwriter-publisher George W. Thomas, summoned her to Chicago. She settled there with her gambler husband, Matt Wallace, and soon came to the attention of Okeh records manager Ralph Peer, who was looking for women blues singers.
Three days later, her first record was pressed. Within three months, she was a top star in the black record industry. During the 1920s, she recorded 48 songs, many of them written or arranged by her brother.
In the late 1930s, after the deaths of her husband and her brother, Mrs. Wallce abandoned the blues in favor of singing gospel music at Detroit churches for the next three decades.
In 1965, she was coaxed back into jazz and blues singing by music researchers who found her voice as strong as ever. Contemporary folk and blues singer Bonnie Raitt coaxed her back to the stage in the 1970s.
Mrs. Wallace's personal 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 1983 album, "Sippie," which was nominated for a Grammy award in the blues category.