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Ethel Waters
~From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Background information:
Born October 31, 1896(1896-10-31) Chester, Pennsylvania, USA
Died September 1, 1977 (aged 80)
Chatsworth, California, USA
Genre(s): Jazz
Occupation(s): Actress, singer
Instrument(s): Vocals
Years active: 1925-1977
: Bessie Smith
Alberta Hunter
Josephine Baker

Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was an Oscar-nominated American blues vocalist and actress. She was the second African American to ever be nominated for an Academy Award.

Waters frequently performed jazz, big band, gospel, and popular music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts. Her best-known recording was her version of the spiritual, "His Eye is on the Sparrow."


Early life:

Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, to a thirteen-year-old mother who had been raped. She was raised in a violent, impoverished Philadelphia ward. Even though she was eventually adopted by her grandmother, she never lived in the same place for more than 15 months. She said of her difficult childhood, "I never was a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family." Despite this unpromising start, Waters demonstrated early the love of language that so distinguishes her work. Moreover, according to her biographer Rosetta Reitz, Waters' birth in the North and her peripatetic life exposed her to many cultures. For the rest of her life, this lent to her interpretation of southern blues a unique sensibility that pulled in eclectic influences from across American music.

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.[1] On her 17th birthday, on Halloween night in 1917, she attended a party in costume at a nightclub on Juniper Street. She was persuaded to sing two songs, and wowed 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 was very talented and had many achievements. After her start in Baltimore, she toured honkytonks in the South. As she described it later, "I used to work from nine until unconscious."[2] Despite her early success, Waters fell on hard times and joined up with 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. Though perhaps best known for her blues singing today, Waters was to go on to star in musicals, plays and TV and return to the blues only periodically.

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 obtained her first job around 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, and that year Ethel 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 Pearl and Ethel 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 were portraying African-Americans as "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 Waters worked only sporadically in following years.`In 1950-51 she wrote her biography "His Eye is on the Sparrow" with Charles Samuels. In it, she talks candidly about her life. She also explains why her age was confused, saying that her mama had to sign a paper saying she was 4 years older that she was. She states she was born in 1900.

Said her biographer Rosetta Reitz, Waters was 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."
photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1938
Private life:

Waters is the great-aunt of Dance music singer and songwriter Crystal Waters. In the period before her death at age 76 in Los Angeles, California, she toured with The Reverend Billy Graham, despite the fact that she was a Catholic and he was a Protestant. Waters died in 1977 at the age of 76 from heart disease. She had been staying in a Chatsworth, California, home of a young couple caring for her, and died at their home.
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* On with the Show! (1929)
* Rufus Jones for President (1933)
* Bubbling Over (1934)
* Gift of Gab (1934)
* Tales of Manhattan (1942)
* Cairo (1942)
* Cabin in the Sky (1943)
* Stage Door Canteen (1943)
* Pinky (1949]])
* The Member of the Wedding (1952)
* Carib Gold (1957)
* The Heart Is a Rebel (1958)
* The Sound and the Fury (1959)
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Awards and recognitions:

* 1949 Academy Award, Best Supporting Actress nomination
* 1984 Gospel Music Association Gospel Music Hall of Fame
* 1984 Gospel Music Hall of Fame
* 1998 Grammy Hall of Fame Award
* 2007 Inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame
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1. ^ Current Biography 1941, pp 899-901
2. ^ Current Biography 1941, p 900

* Bourne, Stephen (2007). Ethel Waters: Stormy weather. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810859025.
* Southern, Eileen (1997). The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393971414.
* Waters, Ethel (1972). To Me It's Wonderful. New York: Harper & Row. OCLC 329566.
* Waters, Ethel; Samuels, Charles T. (1992). His Eye on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306804778.

External links:

* Ethel Waters at the African American Registry
* Ethel Waters at All Music Guide:
* Ethel Waters at the Internet Movie Database:
* Ethel Waters video with Sammmy Davis, Jr. in Rufus Jones for President (1933):
* Ethel Waters discography: