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Waters, Ethel 1895–1977

Ethel Waters 1895-1977

Singer, actress

Rejected by Mother, Abused by Aunts

Pushed Into White Time

Stunned World With Acting Prowess

Selected discography

Selected writings

Sources

Singer and actress Ethel Waters had an extremely difficult childhood. In fact, she opened her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow with these words: I was never a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. I never felt I belonged. I was always an outsider. Nobody brought me up. She was conceived in violence and raised in violence. She had a minimal education at best, dropping out of school early to go to work as a maid. But despite her inauspicious beginnings, Ethel Waters made history, garnering many laurels and many firsts. She was the first black woman to appear on radio (on April 21, 1922); the first black woman to star on her own at the Palace Theater in New York (in 1925); the first black woman to star in a commercial network radio show (in 1933); the first singer to introduce 50 songs that became hits (in 1933); the first black singer to appear on television (in 1939); and the first black woman to star on Broadway in a dramatic play (also in 1939). She is remembered as much for her fine acting as for her expressive singingand even more for her spirit.

When Waterss mother, Louise Anderson, a quiet, religious girl, was in her early teens, a local boy named John Waters raped her at knifepoint. Shortly after Ethel was born, Anderson married Norman Howard, a railroad worker. Waters went by the name Howard for a few years and used several other names, depending on whom she was living with, but finally settled on her fathers name.

Rejected by Mother, Abused by Aunts

Because of the manner in which Waters was conceived, her mother found it hard to accept the child, so the little girl was sent went to live with her grandmother, Sally Anderson (the woman whom Waters would really think of as her mother), and her two aunts, Vi and Ching. Sally Anderson, a domestic worker, moved frequently to find employment and was rarely at home; Waterss aunts usually ignored her, but what attention they paid her was most often physically abusive. Waters was exceptionally bright and enjoyed near-perfect recall; when she was able to attend school, she enjoyed learning. Mostly, though, she grew up on the streets of South Philadelphias Bloody Eighth Ward.

Waters started cleaning houses professionally when she was about eight. As a teenager, she dropped out of school

At a Glance

Born October 31, 1895, in Chester, PA; died of cancer, September 1, 1977, in Chatsworth, CA; daughter of John Weley Waters and Louise Tar Anderson; marritt Merlin Buddy Pemsley, c. 1910; married Clyde Edward Matthews, c. 1928; children: goddaughter Algretta Holmes (adopted).

Began work as a maid, c. 1903; worked as substitute maid, dishwasher, and waitress in local hotels and apartment houses; c. 1908-17; sang and toured vaudeville circuit, 1917-mid-1930s; began recording for Cardinal and Black Swan labels, 1921. Appeared in theatrical productions, including Hello 1919!, 1919; Black Bottom, 1926; MiM Calico, 1926-27; Paw Bound, 1927; Ethel Waters Broadway Revue, 1928; Rhapsody in Black, 1930; From Broadway Bacik to Harlem, 1932; Stormy Weather, 1933; As Thousands Cheer, 1934; Mambas Daughter, 1939; Cabin in the sky, 1940; Member of the Wedding, 1950; and The Voice of Strangers, 1956. Appeared in films, including On With the Show, 1929; Rufus jones for President, 1933; Bubbling Over, 1934; Cairo, 1942; Tales of Manhattan, 1942; Stage Door Canteen, 1943; Cabin in the Sky, 1943; Pinky, 1949; Member of the Wedding, 1953; Trie Heart is a Rebel, 1956; The Sound and the Fury, 1959; and Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, 1963. Appeared on television programs, including series Beulah, ABC-TV, 1950-51.

Awards: Negro Actors Guild Award, 1949, for film Pinky, Academy Award nominations, 1949, for Pinky, and 1953, for Member of the Wedding; New York Drama Critics Award for best actress, 1950, for Member of the Wedding; Tamiment Institute Award, 1951, for His Eye is on the Sparrow; St. Genesius Medal from American National Theater and Academy, 1951; U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, 1994.

to work as a substitute maid, dishwasher, and waitress in local hotels and apartment houses. One night in 1917, she sang at a party at a local bar, Jacks Rathskeller. Two vaudeville producers heard her and convinced her to sign on with them. With little regret, she left her job and began her career.

Waters had a sweet voice, but even more attractive was her ability to imbue a song with emotionwhen she sang the blues, the audience felt her pain; when she sang humorous songs, they forgot their cares for the moment. She was unusual on the vaudeville circuit because she did not sing the traditional blues in the time-honored style, popularized by the great Bessie Smith; she sang instead in a light, clear voice, not in the customary deep, rough, southern blues way. Waters quickly became a showstopper. Within two years, she was appearing on Broadway and touring in musical revues. In 1921, she began a fruitful recording career, eventually waxing over 250 songs. She is still recognized as a crucial link between blues, pop, and jazz.

The 1920s and 30s kept Waters working hard. She arrived in New York City in 1919 and performed in Harlem nightclubs like her favorite, Edmond Johnsons Cellar. She appeared in musical shows, including Hello 1919!, which was her first, and frequently toured with both musicals and vaudeville acts. Until the mid-1920s, she performed exclusively in black shows and clubs for black audiences and had little desire to move to the more lucrative white-audience theater circuit.

Pushed Into White Time

Around 1923, her friend and colleague Earl Dancer convinced her to audition for a white Chicago theater, where she ultimately became a great success at a higher salary than she had ever earned. Dozens of people in show business say they discovered me. This always irritates me, she wrote in His Eye Is on the Sparrow. [Club owner] Edmonds piano player, Lou Henly, was the first one to get me to sing different types of songs. Earl Dancer pushed me into the white time. Whatever her route, Waters had arrived; she was the first black singer to break into the white time.

Life was better, but far from easy. When Waters performed in the South, she faced deeply entrenched racist attitudes. Once, after she had been seriously hurt in a car accident, she lay neglected in the hospital and almost lost her leg. Another time, she was forced to flee a town minutes before she would have been lynched. Even in some northern locales, blacks did not fare much better. In her autobiography, Waters casually described her working conditions at Chicagos Monogram Theater. That was the theater, she wrote, where you had to dress way downstairs with the stoker [heater] and come up to the stage climbing slave-ship stairs. While working there I took sick from the migraine headaches Id had off and on for years. The air was very bad down there where the stoker was. In spite of the racism in the United States at the time, Waters appealed to audiences of all colors. By 1925, her hit Dinah had become an international sensation.

During the late 1920s and the 1930s, film became an important part of Waterss career; in her first motion picture, 1929s On With the Show, she sang Am I Blue, a tune that would later become a hit for her. She also made a few short feature films for Vitaphone studios in New York, including Rufus Jones for President (1933) and Bubbling Over (1934), all the while continuing to perform in stage and club shows throughout the country and to make records.

Stunned World With Acting Prowess

In 1939 Waters stunned the world when she debuted as a dramatic actress playing Hagar in DuBose Heywards southern black classic Mambas Daughters. She longed to play the role after having read the bookbefore the play had even been written. Hagar had held me spellbound, she wrote in His Eye Is on the Sparrow. In Hagar was all my mothers shock, bewilderment, and insane rage at being hurt. But Hagar, fighting on in a world that had wounded her so deeply, was more than my mother to me. She was all Negro women lost and lonely in the White mans antagonistic world. Ethel held audiences spellbound with her portrayal of Hagar; at the end of her first performance, she received 17 curtain calls. As had been so with her singing, she was able to touch those in the house with the very essence of her character.

While she was one of the highest-paid performers in New York in the 1930s, by the 1940s, Waters had trouble finding work. In 1942 she moved to Los Angeles to appear in the film Cairo and stayed on to film Cabin in the Sky in 1943. After that, the roles dried up; substantial dramatic parts for black women in films and on stage were almost nonexistent. And when she returned to New York, she found that the nightclub scene was changing. Now middle-aged and overweight, Waters had trouble finding work as a singer. She hit professional bottom in 1948, working only a few weeks that year.

Then, in 1949, Waterss luck changed. She played Granny in the film Pinky and received an Academy Award nomination for her work. A year later, she opened to great critical acclaim in the play Member of the Wedding. In 1953, she received another Academy Award nomination, for her work in the film version of Member. Although she continued to sing, her acting career received considerably more notice.

Despite her success, by the end of the 1950s, Waters began to question the meaningfulness of her career. She had always been a religious woman, but after seeing the Billy Graham Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, she rededicated herself and her talents to the glory of God. She joined the Graham Crusade and toured extensively with it. She continued some secular work all of her life, appearing in The Sound and the Fury and The Heart Is a Rebel in the late 50s and doing occasional guest spots at clubs and on television, but her main focus was the Crusade. She sang with Graham until cancer overtook her in 1977.

Ethel Waters was a great singer because she was a brilliant actress. She once said, A song is a storythats how it is to meand I sing it so it tells the story. Waters sold everything she sang to the audience, making them feel each emotion as if it were their own. After establishing her singing career, she brought her formidable abilities to the legitimate theater to the highest critical acclaim. In her best work, she played characters like herself, who fought hard against a cruel world. In the last decades of her life, she used the same talents to express her religious devotion. No matter where she performed, no matter what or whether she sang, she touched people with the pain, humor, and above all, the dignity of her spirit.

Selected discography

Ethel Waters on Stage and Screen (1925-40), CBS, 1989.

Cabin in the Sky, Milan Records, 1992.

Ethel Waters 1925-1926, Classic Records, 1992.

Ethel Waters 1926-1929, Classic Records, 1993.

Who Said Blackbirds Are Blue?, Sandy Hook.

Selected writings

(With Charles Samuels) His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Greenwood Press, 1951.

To Me Its Wonderful, Harper & Row, 1972.

Sources

Books

DeKorte, Juliann, Ethel Waters: Finally Home, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1978.

Knaack, Twila, Ethel Waters: I Touched a Sparrow, Word Books, 1978.

Morehead, Philip D., and Anne MacNeil, The New American Dictionary of Music, Dutton, 1991.

Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking/Penguin Inc., 1989.

Pleasants, Henry, The Great American Popular Singers, Fireside, 1985.

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer, 1992.

Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982.

Waters, Ethel, and Charles Samuels, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, new edition, Greenwood Press, 1978.

Waters, Ethel, To Me Its Wonderful, Harper & Row, 1972.

Periodicals

American Heritage, February/March 1994, pp. 60-73.

American Studies, Fall 1990.

Billboard, April 16, 1988.

Jazz Journal International, December 1988.

Readers Digest, December 1972.

Variety, January 27, 1988; April 13, 1988.

Robin Armstrong

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Waters, Ethel

Ethel Waters

Singer, actress

Rejected by Mother, Abused by Aunts

Pushed Into White Time

Stunned World With Acting Prowess

Selected discography

Sources

Singer and actress Ethel Waters had an extremely difficult childhood. In fact, she opened her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow with these words: I was never a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. I never felt I belonged. I was always an outsider.... Nobody brought me up. She was conceived in violence and raised in violence. She had a minimal education at best, dropping out of school early to go to work as a maid. But despite her inauspicious beginnings, Ethel Waters made history, garnering many laurels and many firsts. She was the first black woman to appear on radio (on April 21, 1922); the first black woman to star on her own at the Palace Theater in New York (in 1925); the first black woman to star in a commercial network radio show (in 1933); the first singer to introduce 50 songs that became hits (in 1933); the first black singer to appear on television (in 1939); and the first black woman to star on Broadway in a dramatic play (also in 1939). She is remembered as much for her fine acting as for her expressive singingand even more for her spirit.

When Waterss mother, Louise Anderson, a quiet, religious girl, was in her early teens, a local boy named John Waters raped her at knifepoint. Shortly after Waters was born, Anderson married Norman Howard, a railroad worker. Waters went by the name Howard for a few years and used several other names, depending on whom she was living with, but finally settled on her fathers name.

Rejected by Mother, Abused by Aunts

Because of the manner in which Waters was conceived, her mother found it hard to accept the child, so the little girl was sent went to live with her grandmother, Sally Anderson, the woman whom Waters would really think of as her mother, and her two aunts, Vi and Ching. Sally Anderson, a domestic worker, moved frequently to find employment and was rarely at home; Waterss aunts usually ignored her, but what attention they paid her was most often physically abusive. Waters was exceptionally bright and enjoyed near-perfect recall; when she was able to attend school, she enjoyed learning. Mostly, though, she grew up on the street.

Waters started cleaning houses professionally when she was about eight. As a teenager, she dropped out of school to work as a substitute maid, dishwasher, and waitress in local hotels and apartment houses. One night in 1917, she sang at a party at a local bar, Jacks Rathskeller. Two vaudeville producers heard her and convinced her to sign on with them. With little regret, she left her job and began her career.

For the Record

Born October 31, 1895, in Chester, PA; died of cancer September 1, 1977, in Chatsworth, CA; daughter of John Weley Waters and Louise Tar Anderson; married Merritt Buddy Pernsley c. 1910; married Clyde Edward Matthews c. 1928.

Began work as a maid, c. 1903; worked as substitute maid, dishwasher, and waitress in local hotels and apartment houses; c. 1908-1914; sang and toured vaudeville circuit, 1917-mid-1930s; began recording for Cardinal and Black Swan labels, 1921. Appeared in stage musicals, including Hello 1919!, 1919; Jump Steady, 1922; Plantation Revue, 1925; Black Bottom, 1926; Miss Calico, 1926-27; Paris Bound, 1927; Ethel Waters Broadway Revue, 1928; Rhapsody in Black, 1930, 1933; From Broadway Back to Harlem, 1932; Stormy Weather, 1933; As Thousands Cheer, 1934; and Cabin in the Sky, 1940. Appeared in dramas, including Mambas Daughter, 1939; Member of the Wedding, 1950; and The Voice of Strangers, 1956. Appeared in films, including On With the Show, 1929; Rufus Jones for President, 1933; Cairo, 1942; Tales of Manhattan, 1942; Stage Door Canteen, 1943; Cabin in the Sky, 1943; Pinky, 1949; Member of the Wedding, 1953; The Heart Is a Rebel, 1956; The Sound and the Fury, 1959; and Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, 1963. Appeared on television programs, including series Beulah, ABC-TV, 1950-51. Author of His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Greenwood Press, 1951, and To Me Its Wonderful, Harper & Row, 1972.

Awards: Negro Actors Guild Award, 1949, for film Pinky; Academy Award nominations, 1949, for Pinky, and 1953, for Member of the Wedding; New York Drama Critics Award for best actress, 1950, for Member of the Wedding; Tamiment Institute Award, 1951, for His Eye Is on the Sparrow; St. Genesius Medal from American National Theater and Academy, 1951; U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, 1994.

Waters had a sweet voice, but even more attractive was her ability to imbue a song with emotionwhen she sang the blues, the audience felt her pain; when she sang humorous songs, they forgot their cares for the moment. She was unusual on the vaudeville circuit because she did not sing the traditional blues in the time-honored style, popularized by the great Bessie Smith; she sang instead in a light, clear voice, not in the customary deep, rough, southern blues way. Waters quickly became a sensation. Within two years, she was appearing on Broadway and touring in musical revues. In 1921, she began a fruitful recording career, eventually waxing over 250 songs.

The 1920s and 30s kept Waters working hard. She arrived in New York City in 1919 and performed in Harlem nightclubs like her favorite, Edmond Johnsons Cellar. She appeared in musical shows, including Hello 1919!, which was her first, and frequently toured with both musicals and vaudeville acts. Until the mid-1920s, she performed exclusively in black shows and clubs for black audiences and had little desire to move to the more lucrative white-audience theater circuit.

Pushed Into White Time

But in 1925 her friend and colleague Earl Dancer convinced her to audition for a white Chicago theater, where she ultimately became a great success at a higher salary than she had ever earned. Dozens of people in show business say they discovered me. This always irritates me, she wrote in His Eye Is on the Sparrow. [Club owner] Edmonds piano player, Lou Henly, was the first one to get me to sing different types of songs. Earl Dancer pushed me into the white time. Whatever her route, Waters had arrived; she was the first black singer to break into the white time.

Life was better, but far from easy. When Waters performed in the South, she faced deeply entrenched racist attitudes. Once, after she had been seriously hurt in a car accident, she lay neglected in the hospital and almost lost her leg. Another time, she was forced to flee a town minutes before she would have been lynched. Even in some northern locales, blacks did not fare much better. In her autobiography, Waters casually described her working conditions at Chicagos Monogram Theater. That was the theater, she wrote, where you had to dress way downstairs with the stoker [heater] and come up to the stage climbing slave-ship stairs. While working there I took sick from the migraine headaches Id had off and on for years. The air was very bad down there where the stoker was. And yet Waters never grew bitter over the hardships she suffered. Indeed, her autobiography maintains a distinctively matter-of-fact tone; it is both funny and sad, a touching testimony to human survival and dignity.

During the 1930s, film became an important part of Waterss career; in her first motion picture, 1929s On With the Show, she sang Am I Blue, a tune that would later become a hit for her. She also made a few short feature films for Vitaphone studios in New York, including Rufus Jones for President (1933) and Bubbling Over(1934), all the while continuing to perform in stage and club shows throughout the country and to make records.

Stunned World With Acting Prowess

In 1939 Waters stunned the world when she debuted as a dramatic actress playing Hagar in DuBose Heywards Mambas Daughter. She longed to play the role after having read the bookbefore the play had even been written. Hagar had held me spellbound, she wrote in His Eye Is on the Sparrow. In Hagar was all my mothers shock, bewilderment, and insane rage at being hurt.... But Hagar, fighting on in a world that had wounded her so deeply, was more than my mother to me. She was all Negro women lost and lonely in the White mans antagonistic world. Ethel held audiences spellbound with her portrayal of Hagar; at the end of her first performance, she received 17 curtain calls. As had been so with her singing, she was able to touch those in the house with the very essence of her character.

While she was one of the highest-paid performers in New York in the 1930s, inexplicably in the 1940s, Waters had trouble finding work. In 1942 she moved to Los Angeles to appear in the film Cairo and stayed on to film Cabin in the Sky in 1943. After that, the roles dried up; substantial dramatic parts for black women in films and on stage were almost nonexistent. And when she returned to New York, she found that the nightclub scene was changing and even had trouble finding work as a singer. She hit professional bottom in 1948, working only a few weeks that year.

Then, in 1949, Waterss luck changed. She played Granny in the film Pinky and received an Academy Award nomination for her work. A year later, she opened to great critical acclaim in the play Member of the Wedding. In 1953, she received another Academy Award nomination, for her work in the film version of Member. Although she continued to sing, her acting career received considerably more notice.

Despite her success, by the end of the 1950s, Waters began to question the meaningfulness of her career. She had always been a religious woman, but after seeing the Billy Graham Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, she rededicated herself and her talents to the glory of God. She joined the Graham Crusade and toured extensively with it. She continued some secular work all of her life, appearing in The Sound and the Fury and The Heart Is a Rebel in the late 50s and doing occasional guest spots at clubs and on television, but her main focus was the Crusade. She sang with Graham until cancer overtook her in 1977.

Ethel Waters was a great singer because she was a brilliant actress; she sold everything she sang to the audience, making them feel each emotion as if it were their own. After establishing her singing career, she brought her formidable abilities to the legitimate theater to the highest critical acclaim. In her best work, she played characters like herself, who fought hard against a cruel world. In the last decades of her life, she used the same talents to express her religious devotion. No matter where she performed, no matter what or whether she sang, she touched people with the pain, humor, and above all, the dignity of her spirit.

Selected discography

Ethel Waters on Stage and Screen (1925-40), CBS, 1989.

Cabin in the Sky, Milan Records, 1992.

Ethel Waters 1925-1926, Classic Records, 1992.

Ethel Waters 1926-1929, Classic Records, 1993.

Who Said Blackbirds Are Blue?, Sandy Hook.

Sources

Books

DeKorte, Juliann, Ethel Waters: Finally Home, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1978.

Knaack, Twila, Ethel Waters: I Touched a Sparrow, Word Books, 1978.

Morehead, Philip D., and Anne MacNeil, The New American Dictionary of Music, Dutton, 1991.

Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking/Penguin Inc., 1989.

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer, 1992.

Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982.

Waters, Ethel, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Greenwood Press, 1951, reprinted, 1978.

Waters, Ethel, To Me Its Wonderful, Harper & Row, 1972.

Periodicals

American Studies, Fall 1990.

Billboard, April 16, 1988.

Jazz Journal International, December 1988.

Readers Digest, December 1972.

Variety, January 27, 1988; April 13, 1988.

Robin Armstrong

Cite this article
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"Waters, Ethel." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Waters, Ethel." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/waters-ethel

Waters, Ethel

Ethel Waters

Vocalist and actress Ethel Waters (1896–1977) was a key figure in the development of African American culture between the two world wars. She broke barrier after barrier, becoming the first black woman heard on the radio, the first black singer to perform on television, the first African American to perform in an integrated cast on Broadway, and the first black woman to perform in a lead dramatic role on Broadway. As a singer Waters introduced over 50 songs that became hits, including standards of the magnitude of "St. Louis Blues" and "Stormy Weather." Her jazzy yet controlled vocal style influenced a generation of vocalists, black and white, and her career, encompassing stage, song, and screen, flowered several times in comebacks after tumbling to low points.

Today Waters is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath with other major African American performers of the1920s and 1930s. While the careers of jazz artists like Louis Armstrong or even her blues–singing contemporary Bessie Smith are exhaustively dissected by historians, Waters is remembered chiefly by listeners and performers with a special interest in the early years of the American popular song industry. Only a few reissues of her recordings have been made available on compact discs and online music services.

There are several reasons for this disparity, all of which can be reduced to the idea that Waters and her career could not easily be mythologized. Her field was pop, not the jazz or blues that has typically fascinated investigators of the American musical past, although she was touched creatively by both those genres. She lived and worked for decades, not dying the tragic death of Billie Holiday, a singer with a background similar to her own. And late in life she turned to gospel music, appearing with prominent conservative figures in an era when African American militancy was on the rise. "You don't become a jazz legend by growing old, playing grandmothers, and palling around with Billy Graham and Richard Nixon," noted singer Susannah McCorkle in an essay on Waters that appeared in American Heritage magazine.

Yet Waters overcame a childhood as bitterly hard as Armstrong's or Holiday's. She was conceived when her mother, 12 years old at the time, was raped at knifepoint. Born in Chester, Pennsylvania and growing up in and around nearby Philadelphia, she was raised by a grandmother and two alcoholic aunts, who abused her physically. She had neither a bed nor a bathtub and had vivid memories of opening closet doors only to come face to face with a rat on numerous occasions. By the time she was seven, Waters was serving as lookout for prostitutes and pimps in what she called Philadelphia's "Bloody Eighth Ward." "I played with the thieves' children and the sporting women's trick babies," Waters recalled in her autobiography, His Eye Is On the Sparrow. "It was they who taught me how to steal."

Some bright spots came in a Catholic school she began attending when she was nine; where nuns noticed her gifts for speaking and mimicry and her powerful memory (Waters called it "elephantine"). Waters married an older man named Merritt Purnsley in 1910. The marriage was abusive and ended after less than a year; she later married and divorced twice more, never had children, and rarely spoke of her marriages. As a teenager, Waters was often hired out by her grandmother as a housecleaner or chambermaid—jobs that seem dismal now, but for Waters seemed to open up a whole new world. She dreamed of being hired by a wealthy woman who would take her on travels around the world, and she would stand in front of mirrors in the houses she cleaned and do song-and-dance routines. Waters had already impressed Philadelphia churchgoers as a singer as far back as age five.


Performed as "Sweet Mama Stringbean"

In 1917 Waters entered a singing contest at a Philadelphia bar, and before long she had joined a touring vaudeville show led by a duo named Braxton and Nugent and was being paid ten dollars a week. Performing at first as part of a trio billed as the Hill Sisters, she soon connected with audiences as a soloist and was dubbed "Sweet Mama Stringbean." During this period she heard "St. Louis Blues," a composition by pioneering blues songwriter W.C. Handy, performed by a female impersonator and got Handy's permission to give the song its formal premiere at Baltimore's Lincoln Theater. Soon "St. Louis Blues" became her trademark, and even when she appeared in Atlanta with the great Bessie Smith, the crowd clamored for her to sing it. Even as she began to find success, Waters lacked confidence; she sometimes returned to manual-labor jobs so that she would have them to fall back on.

Touring the South was a necessity for black vaudeville troupes, for that was where the bulk of their audiences were to be found. But it could also be brutally dangerous. In Atlanta, Waters was almost lynched after a dispute over piano tuning. And after an auto accident in Anniston, Alabama, Waters had to plead for her life with passing white motorists who told her at first that they would rather see her die. She was taken to the segregated black ward of a nearby white-run hospital and basically left to die; oil and dirt that had become trapped in her leg wound were never removed. Gangrene threatened her with the loss of a leg, but she was finally removed from the hospital after the illegal intercession of a white nurse and treated by a nearby black surgeon.

To escape the hazardous life of touring vaudeville, Waters tried her luck in New York. Again uncertain of her skills, she quickly found work in black stage musicals and at Harlem nightclubs like Edmond's Cellar, where audiences demanded the racy double-meaning blues songs of the day. But at the urging of pianist Lou Henley she also applied her talents to more elegant pop songs of the day like Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." Her versatility got noticed at Black Swan, the top black-owned record label of the day, and the 26 sides she recorded there included "Down Home Blues" (the label's first big success) and other hits. Waters went back on the road, sometimes working with an orchestra led by future swing arranger and bandleader Fletcher Henderson and providing him with a crucial dose of blues feeling.

In 1924, again reluctant but urged on by Harlem performer Earl Dancer, Waters went to Chicago to try to break into the more lucrative world of white vaudeville. She was an immediate hit and followed up her success there with a run at New York's Plantation Club. Through the 1920s, Waters was a successful jazz vocalist, recording with the likes of Benny Goodman and the brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Her greatest successes, however, still came on stage. She appeared on Broadway in several high-profile all-black musicals and toured the United States and Europe. Booked at Harlem's Cotton Club in the early 1930s, the focal point of New York's "black and tan" scene that drew white audiences to hear top African-American artists, Waters premiered "Stormy Weather," a new song by future Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen.

Joined Cast of Berlin Musical

Her interpretation of the song was soon the talk of New York, and songwriter Irving Berlin stopped in to hear it. He invited Waters to star in his new topical musical As Thousands Cheer, and in 1934 she became the first black star in an otherwise all-white musical cast. Berlin's show included "Supper Time," an anti-lynching song for Waters that prefigured the success of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" several years later. Waters followed up that success with another well-reviewed appearance in the revue At Home Abroad in 1935.

Wanting to stretch herself as an actress, Waters cut back on her singing in the late 1930s in favor of dramatic stage roles. In 1939 she starred in Mamba's Daughters, a play by Porgy and Bess lyricist DuBose Heyward, becoming the first black actress to star in a Broadway drama. Exhausted by the intensity of playing a character who reminded her of her own grandmother and of her own terrible childhood, Waters nevertheless looked back on the play's run (in an interview quoted by McCorkle) as "fourteen months of glory." She appeared in the musical Cabin in the Sky in 1940 and co-starred with Louis Armstrong and the young Lena Horne (a Waters disciple in many ways) in its film version two years later.

A nondrinker and nonsmoker, Waters dealt with the pressures of live theater by eating. Her weight ballooned to more than 300 pounds, and roles dried up. Nearly losing her California home, Waters was forced to appear wherever she could in minor nightclubs. But things turned around with her appearances as a grandmother in Pinky (1949), an Elia Kazan-directed film that brought her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

The following year, she agreed to appear in the Carson McCullers play The Member of the Wedding after the role of Berenice Sadie Brown was rewritten to give it a more religious orientation. Waters won a New York Drama Critics' Circle award for her performance, which included a rendition of the gospel hymn "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." The hymn's title became the name of her best-selling 1951 autobiography, which unsentimentally recounted the hellish trials of her early life. In 1952 the film version of The Member of the Wedding brought Waters another Oscar nomination.


Took Criticism for Maid Portrayal

Waters starred as a maid in the television series Beulah in 1950, becoming the first African-American to reach stardom in the new television medium. Civil rights organizations, growing in influence, criticized Waters for upholding the maid stereotypes that had often plagued blacks in Hollywood, but Waters, who had worked for years as a maid herself, maintained that there was no shame in playing one on screen. For much of the 1950s Waters steadily pulled in audiences as the star of her own one-woman show. But, living alone in an apartment in New York City, she felt isolated and unfulfilled.

In 1957, Waters attended a revival held at Madison Square Garden as part of the Billy Graham Crusade. She joined the Graham choir at first, then began to lend her gifts as a gospel soloist to Graham. After Waters announced that she had become a born-again Christian in 1957, her weight dropped from 380 to 160 pounds. Through Graham she met and became friends with Richard Nixon and his family, and she espoused politically conservative positions. "I'm not concerned with civil rights," Waters said in an interview quoted by McCorkle. "I'm only concerned with God-given rights, and they are available to everyone!"

Waters performed at the White House in 1971, returning the following year as a guest at the wedding of presidential daughter Tricia Nixon. She was also honored by Graham at a 1972 testimonial dinner attended by a galaxy of Hollywood stars. Her final appearance came at a Billy Graham Crusade event held in San Diego in August of 1976. She suffered from cataracts, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, and cancer, and finally died on September 1, 1977 at the home of future biographer Paul DeKorte. "Because of her trailblazing style, Waters deserves to be as widely listened to and loved as the jazz icons Bessie Smtih and Billie Holiday," McCorkle noted in 1994, and Waters was honored on a U.S. Postal Service commemmorative stamp that year. But a decade later historians were still just beginning to appreciate her accomplishments.


Books

Contemporary Musicians, volume 11, Gale, 1994.

Waters, Ethel, with Charles Samuels, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Doubleday, 1951.


Periodicals

American Heritage, February-March 1994.


Online

"Ethel Waters," All Movie Guide, http:/www.allmovie.com (January 11, 2005).

"Ethel Waters," Harlem 1900-1940, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, http://www.si.umich.edu/CHICO/Harlem/text/ewaters.html (January 11, 2005).

"Ethel Waters," Red Hot Jazz, http://www.redhotjazz.com/waters.html (January 11, 2005).

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