ETHEL WATERS (1896 – 1977) was a blues/jazz singer and actress.
Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 1896, to a thirteen-year-old mother who had been raped at knifepoint. She had a rough childhood, raised in a violent, impoverished home. She said of her childhood in the opening of her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow, “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.”
Despite her unfavorable beginnings, Waters made history as 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).
Waters was raised by her grandmother, Sally Anderson, because the way in which she was conceived was hard for her mother, Louise Anderson, to accept. Waters began cleaning houses professionally when she was about eight and dropped out of school to work as a substitute maid, dishwasher and waitress in local hotels and apartment houses.
She married at 13, but left her abusive husband and became a maid in Philadelphia working for $4.75 per week. On October 31, 1913, her 17th birthday, she attended a Halloween party and was persuaded to sing. The audience was so impressed that she was offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. She earned $10 a week, but her managers cheated her out of the tips thrown on stage.
In 1919, Waters went to New York City and was billed as Sweet Mama String Bean because of her slender frame. In 1921, she recorded two songs for Cardinal Records and became the first artist to release a blues record on the black-owned Black Swan label, “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy”. Her singing style rated with the best of the era’s vocalists, but by the mid 1920s she had stopped singing the blues.
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. [Club owner] Edmond’s 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,” she wrote in His Eye Is on the Sparrow.
After becoming the first black singer to break into the “white time”, Waters’ style changed to more of a successful pop star. She performed in a number of revues including Africana, Paris Bound and The Ethel Waters Broadway Revue. In 1929, she landed her first acting role in the film On with the Show. She also appeared in Pinky, which won her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in 1949.
On Broadway, Waters appeared in Mamba’s Daughters, which also brought another Academy Award nomination, though her greatest theatrical achievement was in 1950 when she played a cook in the play The Member of the Wedding and won the New York Drama Critics Award for best actress.
By the end of the 1950s, Waters began questioning 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.
Waters died at the age of 80 in 1977 from cancer at the California home of a young couple who cared for her. She is the great-aunt of singer and songwriter Crystal Waters.
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