It’s always a revelation that these truly difficult and antagonistic personalities can project such a happy and loving façade to the public. They don’t know how to actually be nice but they certainly know how to act nice. Ethel Waters was not a good person, at least not until she got religion late in her life. She reminds us of Pearl Bailey, the “ambassador of love,” who was one of the meanest persons in show business.
Ethel Waters was faced with racism and stereotyping throughout her career. She triumphed over all adversity with her strong will and single-mindedness. Waters was the first black woman to be billed above the title of a show. She was also the first black woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award, the first to have a regular radio program, in 1933, and the first to appear on television (1939). Her singing was an inspiration and model for countless younger talents both black and white including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, Connee Boswell, and Maxine Sullivan. Sophie Tucker even paid Waters to sing for just her.
Ethel Waters was born Ethel Howard in Chester, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1896. Her twelve-year-old mother rejected her and her earliest years, raised by her grandmother, were extremely difficult. At the age of five she appeared in a church show under the name Baby Star. She married at age thirteen to an abusive husband. They were divorced a year later. In 1917, while working as a laundress, she entered a talent contest and that led to performances in vaudeville. He billing was “Sweet Mama Stringbean.” She moved to New York in 1919, making her New York debut at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem and appearing in the revue Hello, 1919! at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre.
In 1921 she began her recording career on the Cardinal and Black Swan labels, making her among the first blacks to record. She was paid $100 for her Black Swan session and the money was well-spent, Black Swan had a big hit with “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy.” That success led her to a contract with the company which stipulated that she was forbidden to marry during the length of the contract. Waters toured with Fletcher Henderson and the Black Swan Jazz Master through the black theatre circuits of the South.
Unlike other blues singers, Waters didn’t always shout her songs, she often sang softly and with a wry take on her lyrics. She acted more sophisticated as she gained confidence and experience but could put across a low-down lyric with the best of them. And she often sang the requisite double-entendre songs of the time to great effect and with perfect diction. Even when she growled out a lyric the listener could hear every word. Waters was also a better actress and was smarter than the majority of blues singers and that stood her well when her material improved and she could meet the challenge of her material in a dramatic interpretation. Her early blues had a touch of jazz and she was able to make the transition from blues to jazz to Tin Pan Alley standards with ease.
Black Swan folded in 1923 and, in 1925, after Waters appeared at the Plantation Club in Times Square singing “Dinah,” Columbia Records signed her. All the time she moved forward in her career, spending more and more time on stages rather than clubs. She made her Broadway debut in the revue Africana (1927) in which she sang “Dinah” and “I’m Coming Virginia.” When producer Lew Leslie’s revue Blackbirds of 1928 turned out to be a smash on Broadway, it heralded a second wave of black revues and musicals. Waters was ready to leave the road and conquer Broadway. She appeared in Lew Leslie’s follow up to his first smash-hit, the sensibly named Blackbirds of 1930. That same year she made her first appearance in Europe.
Three years later she appeared at the Cotton Club where she introduced the Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler standard, “Stormy Weather.” It would be associated with her throughout her career. That same year she made Broadway history in the cast of Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer. She sang the searing “Supper Time” which was heady material for a Broadway largely concerned with fluff on the musical stage. Her costars, Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb, resented her having her name above the title and didn’t want to share their curtain call. But Waters was the definite hit of the show.
She played Carnegie Hall in 1938 and, in 1939, she appeared in the straight play Mamba’s Daughters and was a sensation all over again, receiving seventeen curtain calls. That play would be broadcast by NBC as part of an experimental broadcast along with The Ethel Waters Show, probably the first television revue.
Throughout her Broadway career she recorded her stage hits as well as a number of other tunes. On these recordings she was backed by such greats as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Duke Ellington, and Bunny Berigan. She recorded for Decca in the late ‘30s to great success.
Her 1940 triumph in Vernon Duke’s Cabin in the Sky was repeated in 1943 for MGM. She was forced to perform with Lena Horne whom she resented. For one, Horne represented the younger, prettier generation of black performers. Horne would take “Stormy Weather” and make it her own.
Waters had made her film debut in 1929’s On with the Show and also appeared in Check and Double Check (1930) with Amos ‘n’ Andy and Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. She soon graduated to dramatic parts in such films as Gift of Gab (1934), Tales of Manhattan and Cairo (both 1940).
Between 1942 and 1949 Waters was absent from Broadway. Her disposition stood in the way of her career and she was considered too difficult to work with. But she returned triumphantly in Member of the Wedding which opened on Broadway in 1950. She won the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Actress, got her second Oscar nomination and repeated the role on screen in 1952. She had previously been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Pinky (1949).
Waters had a regular series on television with Beulah (1950-52) in which she played, what else, a maid. She made frequent guest appearances on television as late as 1972. She was a devout follower of Billy Graham and appeared in several of his crusades from 1957 to 1976.
Ethel Waters died on September 1, 1977. (KB)
Ethel Waters discussed the writing of this, one of her biggest hits, in her autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow: “Harry Akst came to my dressing room. He said he was working on the score for a new musical Warner’s wanted from him. They needed a song hit, and Harry thought he had it. He had brought the lead sheet to me so I could work on it. … So we worked on it, and the song was ‘Am I Blue?’ ... Mr. Zanuck listened to my interpretation [and exclaimed,] ‘This is it!’”Am I Blue
Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields were reportedly outside Tiffany’s jewelry store when they heard a swain tell his girlfriend, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” They took the phrase, added “Lindy” (referring to Charles Lindburgh) and wrote a song. Perhaps realizing that the addition would date the song, they replaced the name with “baby.” Or maybe not. Fats Waller claimed he wrote the tune and sold it to Jimmy McHugh, along with “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” We do know that later, when Fields wrote additional lyrics for the film remake of Roberta, titled Lovely to Look At, she kept McHugh’s name as co-author on the songs although he had nothing to do with writing them.I Can't Give You Anything But Love
Ethel Waters knew she had a great song to sing the minute she heard this tune. “When I got out there in the middle of the Cotton Club floor … I was singing the story of my misery and confusion … the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted…. I sang ‘Stormy Weather’ from the depths of my private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated.”Stormy Weather
“I can’t sing on the beat, that’s white.”Ethel Waters to conductor Georgie Stoll, during pre-recording for the film Cairo
“I'm not concerned with civil rights. I'm concerned with God-given rights, and they are available to everyone!”Ethel Waters
“We were enthralled with her. We liked Bessie Smith very much, too, but Waters had more polish, I guess you’d say. She phrased so wonderfully, the natural quality of her voice was so fine.”Jimmy McPartland to Nat Hentoff & Nat Shapiro