birds of a feather

Sippie Wallace

In the 1968 buddy comedy film “The Odd Couple,” Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau played characters whose temperaments were diametrically opposed in every way possible, but were still close friends. Both were divorced middle-aged men sharing a New York City apartment, one a neurotic neat-freak “Felix Ungar” and the other a fun-loving slob “Oscar Madison.” They got along well as roommates despite arguing incessantly. The same sort of thing happens with blues musicians. Take the 1920s relationship between early blues legends Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, for example. Although “The Mother of the Blues” Rainey mentored “Empress of the Blues” Smith, the former’s earthy style clashed with the latter’s subtler, more agile approach. Both peaked during the anything-goes Roaring Twenties, but they found common ground in bed as being lesbians was not necessarily frowned upon in those days.

Flash forward a half century to the late 1960s, when a young and upcoming white blues singer named Bonnie Raitt met the 1920s black blues legend Sippie Wallace, from Texas. The two singers could not have been more different in terms of politics and religion: Bonnie was (and still is) non-religious and liberal while Sippie was very conservative and religious (Southern Baptist) to the core. Bonnie adored the work of the former blues star of the twenties, so the two singers quickly bonded into a lifelong (nonsexual) friendship, despite their many differences. Music formed a strong common ground and the unlikely pair soon wrote songs for each other and sang duos together; the aging Sippie became Bonnie’s mentor. Sippie had recorded her anthem “Women Be Wise” in 1966, but she and Bonnie sang the song as a duo many times during the 1970s and 1980s. Some of its lyrics are as follows:

“Women be wise, keep your mouth shut, don’t advertise your man
Don’t sit around gossiping, explaining what your good man really can do
Some women nowadays, Lord they ain’t no good
They will laugh in your face, Then try to steal your man from you
Women be wise, keep your mouth shut, don’t advertise your man.”

The two opposites attracted throughout the 1970s and up until Sippie’s passing in the mid-80s. “We are two souls who have known each other before,” Bonnie told interviewers in April 1982 when she was 32 years old (story later posted on Bonnie’s Pride and Joy website). “It’s a connection that transcends age and space. She’s more my own grandma than my natural grandmother.” Sippie reciprocates, “I love Bonnie.” The California blues singer also liked to joke that the only time she ever went to church was when she visited Sippie.

What kind of person was Sippie? Beulah Belle Thomas (1898-1986) was an American singer-songwriter born in Arkansas, but raised in Houston, Texas. Her stage name from her early career in tent shows was “Sippie” Wallace, so nicknamed because her teeth were mostly missing as a young girl so she had to be fed everything through a straw until she was three years old. Later, however, her singing was so good that she gained the billing of “The Texas Nightingale.” Between 1923 and 1927, while living in Chicago, she recorded over 40 songs for Okeh Records, many written by her or her brothers, George and Hersal Thomas. Her many accompanists included Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and King Oliver. Her first hits were the 1924 “Shorty George Blues” and “Up the Country Blues.” In the 1930s, Sippie left show business to become a church organist, singer, and choir director in Detroit and performed secular music only sporadically until the 1960s, when she resumed her performing career. Wallace was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1982 and was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Among the top female blues vocalists of her era, Wallace ranked up there with such blues legends as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith. 

How about Bonnie then? The California-born, 71 year old Bonnie Lynn Raitt is an American blues singer, guitarist, songwriter, and activist. During the 1970s, Raitt released a series of roots-influenced albums that incorporated elements of blues, rock, folk and country. Dig in Deep, released in 2016, is the 20th album in the storied career of this blues singer turned rock star. Raitt played over 170 shows in North America, Singapore, Australia/New Zealand, the UK and Europe on her 2012-13 “Slipstream” tour, made several national appearances (Ellen, Leno, Letterman, GMA, Fallon, Kimmel and more), performed at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors and received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance from the American Music Association, states her website. Raitt has received 10 Grammy Awards and is listed as number 50 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

If you have read this far, you’re probably wondering what is the point here. Well, if a fictional pair like Felix and Oscar can learn to live together despite their many differences and a real-life friendship can blossom between black and white performers like Sippie Wallace and Bonnie Raitt, why can’t Americans get along better during these trying days? Where, exactly, is the common ground? Tribal politics, cultural warfare, nationwide protests and a raging pandemic are dividing our nation like never before. Isn’t it time to put away our differences, bury the hatchets, and get back to being normal Americans again? Maybe we just need to dig in deeper to find that common ground. America came together culturally when we were attacked by Japan in December 1941. We need to be able to come together again, without another Pearl Harbor this time. Instead of Make America Great Again how about Make America America Again?

Sippie and Bonnie together sing “Women Be Wise”

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