October 31, 1896– Ethel Waters:
“Only those who are being burned know what fire is like.”
When doing research for #BornThisDay, I have been struck by the cruelty, contempt and challenges that were foisted on minority artists and performers in the past century. That their work should be adored and rewarded, but the artist would still need to enter a theatre or hotel by the backdoor makes their stories especially painful. That these amazing performers persevered and gave us so much is a testament to the power of their art.
Ethel Waters rose to stardom from an obscure beginning, an alley in Philadelphia where she lived in poverty with her mother and grandmother. She faced unspeakable racism during her rise to fame. She was born as a result of her mother’s rape at 13-years-old. Waters grew up in a violent, impoverished environment. She never lived in the same place for more than a year. Waters:
“I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.”
Despite this unpromising start, Waters demonstrated a love of language that distinguishes her work. Waters’ birth in the northern part of the USA, plus her vagabond life, exposed her to many cultures. Her childhood gave her an interpretation of the Southern Blues Music that brought a unique sensibility. She pulled together eclectic influences from all sorts of musical genres to make her remarkable sound.
Waters was a singer, dancer, actor, and an evangelist. She was never confined to a single identity. As a singer, she played with styles, doing what was called “race music”, while also doing white standards and show tunes.
Waters married when she was 13-years-old, but she soon fled her abusive husband and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel, working for $5 a week. On her birthday, Halloween night 1913, she went to a party in costume at a nightclub in Philadelphia. She was persuaded to sing a couple of songs, and the audience was so impressed that a booking agent was able to get her a professional gig at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore. She earned $10 a week, but the agent cheated her out of the tips her admirers tossed on the stage.
Waters was a street kid with the high aspiration to become a lady’s maid. Instead, she found herself working in Black Vaudeville. She was billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” because of her tall, lean stature. Her signature tune was St. Louis Blues. Waters performed the popular tune in a softer, subtler style than her rivals, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
In the 1920s, Waters was booked in the better paying white Vaudeville theatres, and she became one of the most celebrated and best paid entertainers of the era. At Harlem’s Cotton Club, she introduced Harold Arlen’s great ballad Stormy Weather, composed by Arlen just for her. Waters:
“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.”
Irving Berlin wrote Supper Time, a song about a lynching, especially for Waters.
She later became the first African-American star to have a national radio show. That’s how big she was.
She had a huge hit on Broadway in the all-black musical Cabin In The Sky (1940) with songs by Vernon Duke and John La Touche. It had a smart, witty script, which showed its black characters with rare dignity. It was made into a film in 1943, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minnelli, with Waters repeating her Broadway role, joined by Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong. It was a huge box-office hit and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe, composed by Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and sung by Waters in the the film.
Waters didn’t just do musicals. As an actor in projects like the stage and screen versions of The Member Of The Wedding (1950), adapted from the novel by gay writer Carson McCullers herself, Waters gave those traditional “mammy” roles real edge and depth.
The Member Of The Wedding had a cast that included Julie Harris and Brandon deWilde, a seven-year-old second grader at the time. It was made into a film in 1952 with the three principals repeating their Broadway roles. The film was directed by Fred Zinnemann. Harris was nominated for the Academy Award, but Waters was shamefully ignored.
Waters’ life was as diverse as her talents. She was a Catholic who would swear like a sailor. She was a lesbian whose loud fights with her lovers made the more proper lesbians, like singer Alberta Hunter, label her a disgrace to their tribe. She was a gentle soul with a terrible temper.
In the 1960s, Waters joined The Reverend Billy Graham on his tours of the USA. Her signature song had been Stormy Weather, but once she joined the Graham Crusade, she never sang it again. Waters:
“My life ain’t stormy no more.”
This change was probably good for Waters, but bad for her fans. Her best known recording became her version of the traditional spiritual His Eye Is On The Sparrow.
Among the songs that Waters was the first to sing: Dinah, Takin’ A Chance On Love, Heat Wave, Am I Blue? and Cabin In The Sky.
Waters was only the second African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award, for the film Pinky (1949), directed of Elia Kazan. She was the first black female actor to have a lead role in a television series, Beulah (1950), playing another mammy role. She was the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award (in 1962!) for a guest role on the popular series Route 66.
Waters took her final curtain call in 1977, taken by that damn cancer.