by Michael Corcoran
Leadbelly said he first heard boogie-woogie piano in East Texas, near Caddo Lake, in 1899. Before Clarence Smith gave it a name with “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” in 1929, the eight-beats-to-the-bar gyration generator was called “Fast Texas.” Pianomen made money playing the lumber camps serviced by the Texas & Pacific Railroad headquartered in Marshall, TX.
A pair of Texas brothers, whose father George Thomas Sr. worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, are credited with taking the left-handed “walking bass” figure nationally with sheet music published from around 1916 to the early ‘20s. George Thomas Jr. and younger brother Hersal’s sheet music for “The Fives” in 1922 and the 1923 Clarence Williams recording of “The Rocks,” written by the Thomas brothers, signaled the birth of “boogie-woogie,” which came from the title of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Booga Rooga Blues.”
With sisters Beulah “Sippie” Wallace and Hociel Thomas (actually George Jr.’s daughter, but raised as a sister) having hit blues records on OKeh in the ‘20s, the Thomases have to be considered “The First Family of Texas Music.” They also raised “Moanin’” Bernice Edwards, a fantastic piano player who recorded for Paramount in the late ‘20s and ARC in the early ‘30s. After a time bouncing between Houston and New Orleans, where George Jr. wrote the highly influential 12-bar “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” (and fathered Hociel with Octavia Malone in 1904), the musicians of the family moved to Chicago around 1921. Sippie signed to OKeh in 1923 and had big hits with “Shorty George Blues,” written by her oldest brother, “Mighty Tight Woman” and “Women Be Wise,” which Bonnie Raitt would resurrect in the ‘70s. George Jr., who said he was missing half his right thumb in a 1918 draft registration card, handled the publishing and wrote songs, while teenaged piano prodigy Hersal, 21 years his junior, hit the theaters and juke joints and demonstrated the tunes. After recording “Suitcase Blues” under his own name in 1925, Hersal backed Hociel, who by this time he knew was his niece, not his sister (unless Hersal, born two years after Hociel, was also secretly George’s child) on sessions with Louis Armstrong on cornet. “Give it to me good Mr. Hersal,” Hociel commanded on “Fish Tail Dance” and he did on the swing dance tune.
After Sippie moved to Detroit with her gambler husband Matt Wallace, Hersal followed and got a gig at Penny’s Pleasure Inn in June 1926. But that engagement turned tragic when Hersal got suspected food poisoning and died a week later. He was only 19.
Tragedy struck the Thomas family again in 1948 or ’49, when Hociel reportedly got in a fight with a sister who died. Hociel was blinded in the fight. She pled self defense and was acquitted. She died in 1952 at age 48.
Clarence Smith was shot to death in a Chicago dance club in 1929, just a month after “Pine Top” became a hit record, and the boogie-woogie fever did not become an epidemic until 1938, when Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis played John Hammond’s “Spirituals To Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. Although George Thomas Jr. had died the previous year at
age 53 from a fall down the stairs, he and brother Hersal were noted in the Carnegie Hall program: “Albert Ammons and Meade ’Lux’ Lewis claim that ’The Fives,’ the Thomas brothers’ musical composition, deserves much credit for the development of modern boogie woogie. During the twenties, many pianists featured this number as a ’get off’ tune and in the variations played what is now considered boogie woogie. This is the first appearance in print of this composition.”
Later in ’38, Tommy Dorsey filled ballroom dance floors with “Boogie Woogie,” an eight-to-the-bar rhythmic dynamo which was basically an instrumental version of “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie.” The record was also a hit when it was reissued during World War II, at the zenith of “boogie-woogie”’s popularity, via such smash hits as “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” by the Andrews Sisters and “Cow Cow Boogie” from Ella Mae Morse.