Ethel WatersMay 30th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1896-1977 Ethel Waters overcame an early life of difficulty to become one of the best-known entertainers of her time. Her unique singing style broke through racial barriers and was embraced by a broad audience, black and white alike. In stage and film, she used her natural acting talent to transcend musical and “Mammy” roles and become an acknowledged dramatic actress, well-known for her roles on the stage, in movies and in popular television series.
Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania to a teenage mother, Louise Anderson, who had been raped. Despite this violent start, she took the name of the father. Waters was cared for by extended family during her early childhood; they moved often, and were chronically poor and hungry. She married an abusive man at the age of 13, dropped out of elementary school, divorced him one year later, and began working as a chambermaid. Waters had also started singing as a child in church choirs and talent shows, and won first prize and a steady gig in one such show on her 15th birthday in 1911. She was discovered by two vaudeville producers in another contest in 1917. She toured on the vaudeville circuit as “Sweet Mama Stringbean,” a reference to her tall lithe figure, for two years, after which she joined the Harlem Renaissance in New York City performing in nightclubs there. Within two years she became one of the first African American singers to record, with the black label Black Swan Records. The recordings were successful, and led to a tour with Fletcher Henderson and the Black Swan Jazz Masters which was also well received and increased Waters’ popularity and fame.
Partly due to her early vaudeville training, Waters sang in a style that differentiated her from other blues masters, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Hers was a softer, more sophisticated and lyrical approach which, when applied to a range of genres from blues to Tin Pan Alley, engaged a broad spectrum of audiences and increased her popularity. She anticipated certain jazz techniques, such as “scat singing,” that would become associated with masters like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and she influenced others like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Sophie Tucker. Her gap-toothed smile and trademark large earrings helped establish her as a comedienne, and her innate theatrical flair lent unusual depths to her interpretations. She never learned to read music, but could remember a tune after one or two hearings; and always brought a fresh approach to each performance.
She introduced over 50 hit songs on recordings during the 1930s, accompanied by superb jazz instrumentalists like Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins. She also recorded with Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. In 1933, at New York’s world-famous Cotton Club, Waters brought all of her suffering, style, and interpretive artistry to a rendition of the overlooked tune “Stormy Weather.” It captivated the audience, became the talk of the town, and ultimately became her signature song. She continued as a regular headliner at the club, performing with such luminaries as Duke Ellington. Waters appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1938.
This same interpretive ability enabled Waters to move from her music performing career to the musical theater stage. She appeared in a number of musicals during the late 1920s and through the next decade, primarily in the black musical genre. But Waters had more originality than the stereotypical singing and dancing characters permitted. She would use her fame and popularity (having become one of the highest-paid performers in the U.S.) to break through the constraints of the musical form and presumptions about African American performers.
A Dramatic Rise to the Top
On January 3, 1939 the play “Mamba’s Daughters” opened in New York. Waters played the character of Hagar in an intensely dramatic role, and received 17 curtain calls for her performance. One critic called her one of the finest actresses of any race. Waters had redefined the range of acting possibilities available to an African American. In the 1940 production of “Cabin in the Sky,” she went on to refute presumptions about the sexiness of mature black women with a buoyantly sensual performance. Waters, however, had a dramatic temper to match her acting ability, and was often hostile toward colleagues at any perceived threat. This may have contributed to a period of inactivity from 1942 through 1949.
She made a triumphant return, this time in film with the 1949 movie “Pinky.” Cast as a black domestic, Waters reimagined the stereotypical “Aunt Jemima” character to which African American actresses had been consigned, by delivering a nuanced performance that elevated the character to a high level of complexity and humanity. She was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first for a black actress since 1939. She added similar depth to the role of Berenice the housekeeper in the Broadway production of “The Member of the Wedding” in 1950, for which she earned the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Actress. This led to her appearance in the film version, and another Academy Award nomination.
Despite Waters’ record of transcending stereotypes, the black pride consciousness of the 1950s and 1960s did not look favorably on such roles. Consequently, there were fewer film opportunities during this period. She embarked on a television career which offered less dramatic potential. But she excelled nevertheless, starring in the series “Beulah” and appearing in others. She was the first black actress nominated for an Emmy award.
Poor health brought Waters into professional retirement by 1960s, but she continued touring with the evangelist Billy Graham until 1975. She died in California in 1977 at the age of 80, having fallen into relative obscurity. Nevertheless, her legacy cannot be overestimated. Waters had a profound effect on many of the black female singers who followed her, as well as countless young aspirants; and she blazed new trails with her dramatic achievements on stage and in film. She left behind two autobiographies, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and To Me It’s Wonderful. Her achievements were matched by her modesty; in Waters’ own words: “We are all gifted. That is our inheritance.”