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Ethel Waters

[waw-terz, wot-erz]

Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896September 1, 1977) was an American blues and jazz vocalist and actress. She frequently performed jazz, big band, rock and roll and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, although she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. Her best-known recording was her version of the spiritual, "His Eye is on the Sparrow", and she was the second African American ever nominated for an Academy Award.

Biography

Early life

Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1896 [she revealed her true birthdate in one of her autobiographies], to a thirteen-year-old mother who had been raped. She was raised in a violent, impoverished home. She never lived in the same place for more than 15 months. She said of her difficult childhood, "I never was a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family." Despite this unpromising start, Waters demonstrated early the love of language that so distinguishes her work. Moreover, according to her biographer Rosetta Reitz, Waters' birth in the North and her peripatetic life exposed her to many cultures. For the rest of her life, this lent to her interpretation of southern blues a unique sensibility that pulled in eclectic influences from across American music.

Waters married at the age of 13, but soon left her abusive husband and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel working for US$4.75 per week. On Halloween night in 1913, she attended a party in costume at a nightclub on Juniper Street. She was persuaded to sing two songs, and impressed the audience so much that she was offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. She later recalled that she earned the rich sum of ten dollars a week, but her managers cheated her out of the tips her admirers threw on the stage.

Career

Waters was very talented and had many achievements. After her start in Baltimore, she toured on the black vaudeville circuit. As she described it later, "I used to work from nine until unconscious." Despite her early success, Waters fell on hard times and joined a carnival which traveled in freight cars to Chicago, Illinois. She enjoyed her time with the carnival, and recalled, "The roustabouts and the concessionaires were the kind of people I'd grown up with, rough, tough, full of larceny towards strangers, but sentimental, and loyal to their friends and co-workers." She did not last long with them, though, and soon headed south to Atlanta, Georgia. There, she worked in the same club with Bessie Smith. Smith demanded that she not compete in singing the blues opposite her, and Waters conceded to the older woman and instead sang ballads and popular songs and danced. Though perhaps best known for her blues singing today, Waters was to go on to star in musicals, plays and TV and return to the blues only periodically.

She fell in love with a drug addict in this early period, but their stormy relationship ended with World War I. She moved to Harlem and became part of the Harlem Renaissance around 1919.

Waters obtained her first job at Edmond's Cellar, a club that had a black patronage. She specialized in popular ballads, and became an actress in a blackface comedy called Hello 1919. Her biographer, Rosetta Reitz, points out that by the time Waters returned to Harlem in 1921, women blues singers were among the most powerful entertainers in the country. In 1921 Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record. She later joined Black Swan Records, where Fletcher Henderson was her accompanist. Waters later commented that Henderson tended to perform in a more classical style than she would prefer, often lacking "the damn-it-to-hell bass". According to Waters, she influenced Henderson to practice in a "real jazz" style. She first recorded for Columbia Records in 1925; this recording was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. Soon after, Waters started working with Pearl Wright, and together they toured in the South. In 1924 Waters played at the Plantation Club on Broadway. She also toured with the Black Swan Dance Masters. With Earl Dancer, she joined what was called the "white time" Keith Circuit. They received rave reviews in Chicago, and earned the unheard-of salary of US$1,250 in 1928. In 1929, Harry Akst helped Wright and Waters compose a version of "Am I Blue?", her signature tune.

During the 1920s, Waters performed and/or was recorded with the ensembles of Will Marion Cook and Lovie Austin. As her career continued, she evolved toward being a blues and Broadway singer, performing with artists such as Duke Ellington.

In 1933, Waters made a satirical all-black film entitled Rufus Jones for President. She went on to star at the Cotton Club, where, according to her autobiography, she "sang 'Stormy Weather' from the depths of the private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated." She took a role in the Broadway musical revue As Thousands Cheer in 1933, where she was the first black woman in an otherwise white show. She had three gigs at this point; in addition to the show, she starred in a national radio program and continued to work in nightclubs. She was the highest paid performer on Broadway, but she was starting to age. MGM hired Lena Horne as the ingenue in the all-Black musical Cabin in the Sky, and Waters starred as Petunia in 1942, reprising her stage role of 1940. The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, was a success, but Waters, offended by the adulation accorded Horne and feeling her age, went into something of a decline.

She began to work with Fletcher Henderson again in the late 1940s. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1949 for the film Pinky. In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her performance opposite Julie Harris in the play The Member of the Wedding. Waters and Harris repeated their roles in the 1952 film version of Member of the Wedding. In 1950, Waters starred in the television series Beulah but quit after complaining that the scripts' portrayal of African-Americans was "degrading."

Despite these successes, her brilliant career was fading. She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and the IRS hounded her. Her health suffered, and worked only sporadically in following years. In 1950-51 she wrote her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, with Charles Samuels. In it, she talks candidly about her life. She also explains why her age has often been misstated, saying that her mother had to sign a paper saying she was four years older than she was. She states she was born in 1900. In her second autobiography, To Me, It's Wonderful, Waters states that she was born in 1896.

Her biographer, Rosetta Reitz, called Waters "a natural". Her "songs are enriching, nourishing. You will want to play them over and over again, idling in their warmth and swing. Though many of them are more than 50 years old, the music and the feeling are still there."

Private life

Waters is the great-aunt of Dance music singer and songwriter Crystal Waters. In the period before her death in Los Angeles, California, she toured with The Reverend Billy Graham, despite the fact that she had once been a Catholic and he was a Protestant. Waters was bisexual, and states in her autobiography, "I wanted love and to get love back. I didn't want a man. Don't misunderstand me, I'm a normal woman. But I'd been so hurt." She died in 1977 at the age of 80 from heart disease, at the Chatsworth, California home of a young couple who cared for her.

Awards and honors

Grammy Hall of Fame

Recordings of Waters were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Ethel Waters: Grammy Hall of Fame Award
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1929 "Am I Blue?" Traditional Pop (Single) Columbia 2007
1933 "Stormy Weather"
(Keeps Rainin' All The Time)
Jazz (Single) Brunswick 2003
1925 "Dinah" Traditional Pop (Single) Columbia 1998

National Recording Registry

Waters' recording of "Stormy Weather" (1933) was honored by the Library of Congress. It was listed in the National Recording Registry in 2004.

Legacy

Year Title Organization Result Notes
2007 Christian Hall of Fame Inducted
1994 29 cents Commemorative stamp U.S. Postal Service Honoree Photo (Scott #2851)
1983 Gospel Music Hall of Fame Inducted
1962 Outstanding Single Performance
by an Actress in a Series
Emmy Awards Nominee Route 66 (TV Series)
"Goodnight Sweet Blues"
1949 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award Nominee Pinky (film)

Filmography

References

Further reading

  • Bourne, Stephen (2007). Ethel Waters: Stormy weather. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
  • Southern, Eileen (1997). The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Waters, Ethel (1972). To Me It's Wonderful. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Waters, Ethel; Samuels, Charles T. (1992). His Eye on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press.

External links

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