Meet 6 women with Houston ties who blazed a trail in music history

We tip our hats to these Houston greats

Women who blazed a trail in music history (Getty)

Here we highlight the lives and legacies of six trailblazing women with Houston ties whose names you might not recognize — but who nonetheless made a profound impact on music history in Texas and beyond.

Edna Dee Woolford Saunders (1880–1963): “Empress of the Arts”

When she was asked in 1918 to book events for Houston’s City Auditorium, an occupation her father protested “was no job for a lady,” Edna Saunders embarked on a career which would place her at the center of the city’s civic life for nearly a half-century.

As a booking agent, Saunders was tasked with attracting high-profile performers at a time when the city’s cultural arts community was in its infancy.

During her decades-spanning career, she introduced Houston audiences to internationally-renowned artists including Enrico Caruso, Serge Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler, Marian Anderson, John Phillip Sousa, Will Rogers and Katherine Hepburn. Productions companies who appeared under the auspices of “Edna W. Saunders Presents,” included the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Metropolitan Opera, which she stole away from Dallas.

During her lifetime, Saunders enjoyed a reputation as the most successful impresario in the Southwest. In an article written about her life and legacy, Historian Betty Trapp Chapman wrote “Edna Saunders planted the seeds that would grow and flourish to make Houston one of the nation’s major cultural centers.”

The Green Room in the Jesse H. Jones Hall was named in her memory, and at the groundbreaking John T. Jones said of Saunders, “Miss Edna gave 46 years of her vitality, vision, and good taste to the city. She left as a legacy the audiences which attend our Symphony concerts, the standing room crowds at Houston Grand Opera, the people who stand in line to buy tickets to the performances of the ballet…There were many who knew her, but among those who did not know her personally, there were hundreds of thousands who have profited from her effort.”

Saunders died on December 21, 1963. A week earlier, she had been named honorary vice president of the International Concert Managers Association, which dubbed her the “first lady” of local concert managers. Saunders is buried at Glenwood Cemetery.

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Sippie Wallace (1898-1986): “The Texas Nightingale”

American Blues and Jazz musician Sippie Wallace (born Beulah Belle Thomas, 1898 - 1986) performs onstage at the Mill Run Theater, Niles, Illinois, April 30, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images) (2019 Paul Natkin)

Sippie Wallace, known as “The Texas Nightingale,” was an influential blues singer and songwriter who came to prominence in the 1920s.

Wallace, whose original name was Beulah Thomas, was born on Nov. 1, 1898, in Houston, one of 13 children of a Baptist deacon. She was nicknamed Sippie in grammar school because, as she once said, ‘’My teeth were so far apart and I had to sip everything.’’ When she was a child, she sang and played the organ at her father’s church. She was exposed to blues and ragtime at traveling tent shows, which she visited often. During one such visit, the performers asked her to fill an opening in the chorus line. She heartily agreed and thus her performing career began. As a teen, Wallace began touring with the tent shows. She sang, acted in plays, danced in the chorus line, did comedy routines and even served as a snake charmer’s assistant.

Her reputation earned her a contract, and by 1923, Wallace had recorded her first album. It sold well and she gained a national reputation. Between 1924 and 1927, she recorded more than 40 songs which featured such sidemen as Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and Clarence Williams. Among her hits were “Shorty George Blues,” “Lazy Man Blues,” “Mighty Tight Woman” and “Woman Be Wise.”

In his book “Texas Music,” writer Rick Koster described Wallace as a “sensationally gifted” artist whose contributions were of great significance to the early blues.

After the death of her husband and her brother, her closest musical collaborator, Wallace hit the brakes on her music career. She settled in Detroit where she worked as a nurse and was the organist and choir director at a church. In the late 1930s she became the director of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. She recorded a few songs and performed only on rare occasions, until the 1960s, when fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey coaxed her out of retirement.

Wallace’s tough, self-assertive songs appealed to feminists of the 1970s. Singer Bonnie Raitt’s debut album in 1971 included two Wallace songs, and during the 1970s and 1980s the two women recorded and toured together. In 1981, Wallace recorded the album “Sippie,” which earned her a Grammy nomination.

Wallace continued performing until her death in 1986.

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Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007): “The Mother of Tejano Music”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Lydia Mendoza Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Getty)

Lydia Mendoza, a Tejano music pioneer revered as “The Glory of Texas,” “The Songstress of the Poor,” “The Mother of Tejano Music” and “The Lark of the Border,” was born in Houston Heights on May 21, 1916, to parents who had fled the Mexican Revolution.

Mendoza scored her first big hit, “Mal Hombre” (“Evil Man”), and rose to fame in the 1930s, becoming one of the first Mexican American superstars at a time when discrimination against Mexicans remained strong. Some Texas hotels and restaurants posted signs warning “No dogs or Mexicans Allowed.”

During her early career, Mendoza toured with her family throughout the Texas-Mexico border region. As her popularity grew, Mendoza’s tours expanded to Cuba and Columbia. Despite popularity among Latino listeners, the Spanish-language singer struggled to achieve recognition among a wider audience. Nevertheless, she gained national prominence when President Jimmy Carter invited her to sing at his inauguration in 1977.

During her lifetime, Mendoza recorded more than 200 songs on more than 50 albums, including boleros, rancheras, cumbias and tangos. Among Mendoza ‘s hits were “Pero Hay Que Triste” (“But Oh, How Sad”), “La Valentina” and “Ángel de Mis Anhelos” (“Angel of My Desires”), “Ojitos Verdes” (“Little Green Eyes”), “Delgadina” and “Amor Bonito” (“Beautiful Love”). Her decades-spanning career ended only after she suffered a stroke in 1988.

Mendoza died of natural causes in San Antonio on Dec. 20, 2007. She was 91.

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Evelyn Joyce Johnson (1920-2005): “Queen of Rhythm and Blues”

Evelyn Johnson played an important role in developing Houston’s recording industry between the 1940s and the 1970s.

Born in Thibodaux, Louisiana, on Sept. 28, 1920, Johnson moved to Houston’s Fifth Ward with her mother in 1926. There, she graduated from Phillis Wheatley High School, after which she worked as an X-ray technician at a local hospital and studied at Houston College for Negroes (later renamed Texas Southern University).

Johnson’s career trajectory veered wildly when, in 1946, she accepted a position as office manager for Houston entrepreneur Don Robey’s Fifth Ward nightclub, the Bronze Peacock, which, in its heyday, was one of the largest and most prestigious Black-owned performance venues in the Southwest. When Robey founded Peacock Records in 1949, he enlisted Johnson’s help building his music empire. For more than two decades, Johnson filled a variety of important but often unacknowledged roles at Robey’s rhythm and blues record conglomerate, which ultimately encompassed the nightclub, at least five record labels, a booking agency and a music publishing company. Peacock Records earned a reputation as the “most influential African American-owned-and-operated record conglomerate in the world during the 1950s and early 1960s.”

Music historian Roger Woods considered Johnson “the true genius” behind Robey’s massive music enterprise. Client B. B. King called Johnson “a remarkable lady” and “one of the pioneers” behind Robey’s enterprise and the recording industry at large.

Johnson died on Nov. 1, 2005, and was buried at Paradise North Cemetery in Houston.

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Willie Mae Thornton (1926–1984): “The Queen of the Blues”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Big Mama Thornton (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) (Getty)

Willie Mae Thornton, an Alabama-born singer-songwriter known affectionately as “Big Mama,” was one of the few women blues stars of the 1940s and 1950s. An aggressive belter who also played the drums and rocked a harmonica, her striking style inspired several mainstream artists, including Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin.

Born Dec. 11, 1926, Thornton was one of seven children. Her father was a minister and her mother sang in the church. After winning an amateur talent show, she landed a job with “Sam Green’s Hot Harlem Review.”

In 1948, Thornton settled in Houston, where she caught the ear of Don Robey, the nightclub entrepreneur and founder of Duke and Peacock record labels. Robey signed her to a contract immediately. With the record label, Thornton developed a national reputation and worked with several popular acts, including Johhny Ace, Roy Ligon, Bobby Blue “Bland” and Gatemouth Brown.

It was the records she made with Johnny Otis’s band between 1952 and 1957, though, that are considered among her greatest recordings. In 1953, she scored her biggest hit, ‘’Hound Dog,’’ which was recorded with the Otis band. The song reached No. 1 on the rhythm-and-blues charts and sold almost two million copies. Sadly, Thornton received a lifetime total of just $500 for the song.

Her iconic rendition of “Hound Dog” influenced Elvis Presley’s version, which became a No. 1 pop hit just three years later in 1956. Thornton’s other signature song, “Ball and Chain,” would later become more strongly associated with one of her fervent admirers, Janis Joplin. After finding only varied success during her decades-spanning career, Thornton grew embittered by the injustices of the music industry.

On July 25, 1984, Thornton was found dead in the Los Angeles boardinghouse where she lived. She died of heart and liver disorders related to longstanding alcohol abuse. She was 57.

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Esther Mae Phillips (1935–1984): “Little Esther”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Esther Phillips Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Getty)

“Little” Esther Mae Phillips was an accomplished rhythm-and-blues singer who got her start with Johnny Otis and was acknowledged by the Beatles as a major innovator of rock.

Phillips was born on Dec. 23, 1935 in Galveston. There, at the age of 6, she began singing in a church choir. Because her parents divorced during her adolescence, Phillips split her time between Los Angeles and Houston. At 13, Phillips reluctantly entered a talent competition at the Barrelhouse Club where she caught the ear of its co-owner, musician Johnny Otis, who signed her to a contract. For the next several years, Phillips toured as the featured vocalist in Otis’s band. It was during this period that she gained her nickname “Little Esther.” With Otis, and on her own, Philips recorded a series of top ten R&B hits which included “Cupid Boogie,” “Double Crossin’ Blues,” “Little Esther,” and “Weddin’ Boogie.”

In the early 1950s, Phillips embarked on a solo career and quickly scored a hit single, “Ring-A-Ding-Doo.” Though her career was incredibly promising, Phillips developed chronic problems with drugs and alcohol and spent the remainder of the decade recuperating in Houston. When she reemerged in the 1960s, she recorded a rhythm-and-blues version of the country hit ‘’Release Me,’’ which garnered her international recognition. Phillips recorded more LPs during the 1960s and into the 1970s and had several more hits which included her cover of the Beatles’ song “And I Love Him,” the disco hit “What A Difference A Day Makes“ and the antidrug song “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” which earned her a Grammy nomination.

Phillips died in Carson, California, on Aug. 7, 1984. She died from liver and kidney failure due to long-term drug abuse. She was 48.

Is there a woman in Houston music history you want to recognize? Share her legacy in the comment section below.

Information for this article is from the “Handbook of Texas” by the Texas State Historical Association, “Texas Music” by Rick Koster, “Lydia Mendoza: Houstonian and First Woman of Tejano Music” by Aimee L’Heureux, and “Presenting Edna Saunders” by Betty Trapp Chapman.

About the Author:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team in 2019. When she’s not hard at work in the KPRC 2 newsroom, you can find Bri drinking away her hard earned wages at JuiceLand, running around Hermann Park, listening to crime podcasts or ransacking the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble.