Hociel Thomas

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Singer and pianist Hociel Thomas (married name "Tebo") was a member of the Houston, Texas-based Thomas family. Her father was George W. Thomas, who made the first boogie-woogie solo on records, "The Rocks,"…
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Singer and pianist Hociel Thomas (married name "Tebo") was a member of the Houston, Texas-based Thomas family. Her father was George W. Thomas, who made the first boogie-woogie solo on records, "The Rocks," for Okeh in October, 1923. Hociel Thomas' nephew was pianist and bandleader Hersal Thomas, composer of the popular "Suitcase Blues." Hociel Thomas' aunt was blues legend Sippie Wallace. You might conclude that her fortune would have been easily made, given her royal family connections. On the contrary, her career was marked by unimaginable personal tragedies and her work is preserved on only 22 recordings, most of which are mainly remembered on account of the musicians who worked with her.

Hociel Thomas relocated from Houston, Texas at about the age of 12 to live with Sippie Wallace in New Orleans. There she made a living as a singer and pianist in the Storyville redlight district until it closed, then afterward worked private parties and the summer resorts, often in combination with Wallace. Wallace resettled in Chicago in 1923, and it is assumed that Hociel Thomas followed her there about a year later. Thomas made her first three records for Gennett in their Richmond, Indiana studio on April 6, 1925 backed by a small band led by her nephew, Hersal Thomas. The following month, two more sides were made with Hociel and Hersal on piano for Okeh, and the tune "Worried Down With the Blues" was a small-scale hit, and Okeh asked for more.

For their next session, held on November 11, 1925, Hersal Thomas managed to bring in Louis Armstrong, recently returned from New York to Chicago, and reunited him with clarinetist Johnny Dodds, his old bandmate from King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. Adding banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, the group resembled Louis Armstrong's pivotal group the Hot Five, and it should -- the first Hot Five session was held the following day on November 12, adding Kid Ory and replacing Hersal Thomas with Lil Hardin Armstrong. Altogether "Louis Armstrong's Jazz Four" made six records backing up Hociel Thomas, and these are currently included along with the rest of Armstrong's "Hot" records on The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings issued on Columbia/Legacy. Armstrong, as was his wont, returned the favor on February 24, 1926 by providing the obbligato on four more sides with the Thomases, and it was on these that Hociel Thomas was heard to her best advantage among her early recordings.

Hersal Thomas perished of food poisoning later in 1926; he was only 20 years old. This sad development was devastating to Hociel Thomas and Sippie Wallace, yet both attempted to move on with their careers. But while Sippie managed to keep things going, even after moving to Detroit and taking up work in sacred music, Hociel ultimately drifted away from music. She was discovered living in Oakland after the Second World War, and recorded seven more tunes, her last, for Circle Records with New Orleans trumpeter Mutt Carey (these were later re-issued on Riverside and on American Music). They are the best recordings that Thomas made, and are the only ones on which she provides her own, fine piano accompaniment. "Tebo's Texas Boogie" is a great example of primordial Texas boogie woogie, and the only example of her boogie piano playing left. Hociel Thomas is often cited as an annoyance in her early recordings with Armstrong, and admittedly she sounds weak on songs like "Sunshine Baby" which is played in a key that is too low-lying for her voice. Nothing in the Circle session suggests this problem; her singing throughout is rich, soulful and suggests the presence of a master blues singer.

In the later '40s Hociel Thomas was not recorded again, but did continue to perform with Kid Ory's band in the San Francisco area. In 1948, Thomas got into a knockdown, drag-out fight with one of her sisters, during which Hociel was blinded and the sister was killed. After a lengthy incarceration and trial she was acquitted of manslaughter charges, but barely two years later, totally blind and badly overweight, Hociel Thomas died of heart disease at the age of 48.