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 song "His Eye is on the Sparrow".
Waters was born in 1896 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
Despite her early success, Waters fell on hard times and joined up with a carnival which traveled in freight cars to Chicago. 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 didn't last long with them, though, and soon headed south to Atlanta. 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 $1250 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, 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 (1942), repeating 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 TV 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.
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."
Waters died in 1977 at the age of 80 from heart disease. She had been staying in a Chatsworth, California home of a young couple caring for her, and died at their home.
- Waters wrote and published two autobiographies, His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1950) and To Me It's Wonderful (1972).
- She was posthumously recognized in 1984 by the Gospel Music Association where her name was placed in its Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
- Lena Horne was quoted as saying Ethel Waters "was the mother of us all" referring to the lineage of female jazz singers.
- Ethel Waters is the great-aunt of Dance music singer and songwriter Crystal Waters.
- In the period before her death at age 80 in Los Angeles, California, she toured with The Reverend Billy Graham, despite the fact that she was a Catholic and he was a Protestant.
Awards and recognitions
- Academy Award, Best Supporting Actress nomination in 1949
- Gospel Music Hall of Fame, 1984
- Grammy Hall of Fame Award, 1998
- Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition. ISBN 0-393-97141-4
- Alexander, Scott. The Red Hot Jazz Archives: Ethel Waters.
- Reitz, Rosetta. Ethel Waters: 1938-1939Foremothers, Volume 6, Liner notes, Women's Heritage Series, Rosetta Records, New York, 1986, RR1314