Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 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.
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.
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."
|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)
|1925||"Dinah"||Traditional Pop (Single)||Columbia||1998|
|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)|