Ethel Waters (Oct.31,1896 (1900?) – Sept.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. She was the second African American ever nominated for an Academy Award.
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.
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 specialized in popular ballads, and became an actress in a blackface comedy called Hello 1919. 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. 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 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.
Although she was considered a blues singer during the pre-1925 period, Waters belonged to the vaudeville style of Mamie Smith, Viola McCoy, and Lucille Hegamin. While with Columbia, she introduced many popular standards, including Dinah, Heebie Jeebies, Sweet Georgia Brown, Someday, Sweetheart, Am I Blue?” and What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue on the popular series, while she continued to sing blues (West End Blues,Organ Grinder Blues, etc.) on Columbia’s 14000 race series. During the 1920s, Waters performed and 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. She remained with Columbia through 1931. She signed with Brunswick in 1932 and remained until 1933, when she went back to Columbia. She signed with Decca in late 1934 for only two sessions, as well as a single session in early 1938.
She began to work with Fletcher Henderson again in the late 1940s. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky (1949), under the direction of Elia Kazan. In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance opposite Julie Harris in the play The Member of the Wedding. Waters and Harris reprised their roles in the 1952 film version, Member of the Wedding. In 1950, Waters starred in the television series Beulah, becoming the first African-American actress to have a lead role in a television series. However, she quit after complaining that the portrayal of blacks was “degrading.” She later guest-starred in 1957 and 1959 on NBC’s The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. In the 1957 episode, she sang “Cabin in the Sky”
Waters died on Sept.1,1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer, kidney failure, and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California.
Ethel Waters – Heat Wave (1933)