“Ethel Waters was the mother of us all,” said LENA HORNE about Waters’s infiuence as an interpreter of the American popular song. Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 1896, Waters was the result of the rape of her 12-year-old mother, who never fully recovered from the trauma. Unable to accept Ethel as her child, she sent the girl to live with her own mother. Though strong and devout, Ethel’s grandmother, a live-in maid, had little time to instill her values in her granddaughter. Left largely on her own, Ethel essentially had to raise herself, becoming a leader in street gangs in her poor neighborhood. Her only experience with close adult supervision was two years spent in a Catholic school. The kindness of the nuns there made her a dedicated Christian throughout her life.
After a brief marriage when she was 13, Waters left school and began working as a hotel chambermaid. At night, she frequented black theaters and nightclubs, perfecting her skill at mimicking popular performers. Soon she began performing as a singer herself with the African-American vaudeville circuit around Baltimore. Billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” because of her tall, lanky frame, Waters became the first woman to sing W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” a song that later became associated with BESSIE SMITH. In 1921 Waters began making recordings, and in the next year she became one of the first African-Americans to sing on the radio. Her early hits included “Down Home Blues,” “Dinah,” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Eventually recording more than 250 songs, Waters would be honored by the Popular Song Association in 1933 for introducing 50 hit songs to the American public.
Water’s singing style was clear and natural, though her soft voice did not have the power of many of her contemporaries’. Her singing, however, was distinguished by her tendency to dramatize the lyrics. She once wrote that “A song is a story—that’s how it is to me—and I sing it so it tells the story.”Throughout the 1920s, Waters performed in African-American clubs, but gradually also moved into the lucrative white vaudeville circuit. After appearing in the revue Africana (1927), she made it to Broadway in the all-black musicals Blackbirds of 1930 and Rhapsody in Black (1931–32). Waters also broke into movies with her first feature, On with the Show (1929). The first full-color talkie, it featured Waters singing “Am I Blue,” which became one of her many hit records. A year earlier, she had married Clyde Edward Matthews; the couple was divorced in 1934.
In 1933, Waters became the highest-paid performer ever to play New York City’s famed Cotton Club. There, she was seen by composer Irving Berlin, who invited her to join his Broadway show As Thousands Cheer (1933). Her gift for impersonation was well-used in a song Berlin wrote especially for her, “Thief in the Night,” which parodied the international sensation JOSEPHINE BAKER. Waters also delivered a dramatic rendition of “Supper Time,” a dirgelike song that told of a black mother’s sorrow over her husband’s lynching. The only African American in an otherwise white cast, Waters challenged racial barriers when the show toured the segregated South. After the success of As Thousands Cheer (1933), Waters appeared in another musical, At Home Abroad (1935), but longed to star in a drama. She appeared as a band vocalist for years, waiting for funding to come through for Mamba ’s Daughter, a play about an African-American family. In 1938 Water finally got her chance to play the hardworking, long-suffering grandmother in the piece, thereby becoming the first black actress to perform the lead role in a Broadway drama. Although the critical reception was mixed, audiences loved the play. On opening night, Waters received 17 curtain calls.
Thrilled with her acceptance as a dramatic actress, Waters denounced singing and looked for more plays to showcase her newly discovered talents. She found, however, that there were few roles in straight plays for African Americans. She instead settled for a part in Cabin in the Sky (1940), an all-black musical inspired by AfricanAmerican folklore. Waters, however, insisted that her character be rewritten, making her into a respectable, pious woman instead of the passive victim of her husband’s philanderings. The successful show became an equally successful film in 1943. Playing opposite such accomplished performers as Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne, Waters created one of the movie’s most memorable moments in her performance of “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,” a song written for her for the film adaptation.
In the late 1940s, Waters again had trouble finding dramatic work, but also discovered that, middleaged and overweight, she was no longer in demand as a club singer. After several lean years, she made a comeback in the film Pinky (1949), in which she played the grandmother of a young African-American woman trying to pass as white. Her performance in the controversial film earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. With her renewed acclaim as a dramatic actress, Waters returned to the theater in Carson McCullers’s play The Member of the Wedding. She had earlier turned down the part of Berenice, the wise housekeeper and caretaker of Frankie, a sensitive 12-year-old white girl. She took on the role only when McCullers agreed to rewrite the part, emphasizing Berenice’s religious piety. Waters also insisted that she sing during the play “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” a song she remembered from her youth. (She later used its title for her 1951 bestselling autobiography.) In part because of Waters’s changes, Berenice avoided the stereotypes associated with African-American “mammies,” instead becoming a full character that, in the words of poet Langston Hughes, was “one of both dignity and gentleness.”
In 1950 Waters became the first black performer to star in a television series, playing the title role in Beulah. Though the series was popular, some African Americans denounced her for playing a maid. The criticism offended Waters, who took it as an insult to her own grandmother. Waters herself was disenchanted with the television industry and left the show after only a year. Once again, Waters had difficulty finding work, though she frequently appeared in revivals of Wedding. Weary of the entertainment industry, she took her career in a new direction after attending a crusade held by Baptist evangelist Billy Graham in 1957. She soon joined Graham’s touring group, first as a member of the choir and later as a soloist. Waters continued to appear with Graham until 1976, when a host of health problems made it impossible for her to perform. She died the next year on September 1 at the age of 79. Waters is remembered for her trailblazing work as both a singer and an actress. In music, she helped bridge the sounds of blues, jazz, and pop. On the stage and in films, she showed that African-American actors could attract audiences to serious drama.
Waters, Ethel, with Charles Samuels. His Eye Is on the Spar-
row. 1951. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.
———. To Me It’s Wonderful. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Cabin in the Sky (1943). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1999.
An Introduction to Ethel Waters: Her Best Recordings 1921–1940. Best of Jazz, CD, 1996.
Member of the Wedding (1953). Columbia/Tristar VHS, 1988.
Pinky (1949). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1994.