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.
Ethel Waters was the first black Superstar...an innovator
who opened all the theatrical doors hitherto closed to black performers of her
day, to attain the towering position she reached as a headliner. She fought
hard and long to achieve solo star status in the white world of vaudeville,
night clubs, Broadway theater, radio, films and television.
More than any other black performer of the century, Ethel
Waters was a woman of the theatre, and the celebrity she attained in maturity
as an actress tended at times to overshadow-at least in memory-the importance
of her accomplishments and influence as a singer.
Her talents defied categorical limits. She was the
fountainhead of all that is finest and most distinctive in jazz and popular
singing. Widely imitated during the 30's and 40's, one still hears echoes of
Ethel Waters in many singers who came after her. Joe Turner, Bing Crosby, Ivie
Anderson, Lee Wiley, Mildred Bailey, Connie Boswell, and Ella Fitzgerald have
acknowledged their debt to her.
Her range soared easily from a low, chest tone to a high,
clear head voice: on records she sang from a low E to high F, just over two
octaves, and on "Memories of You" she hits a spectacular high F
sharp. Her diction was clear and impeccable, colouring the lyrics with the proper
emotion necessary to express the feelings she wanted to convey.
Her eighty year life was a turbulent one filled with low
valleys and high peaks. In her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, she
frankly detailed the squalor of her sordid childhood and early struggles. Her
singing career began with amateur night performances in Philadelphia, then
slowly moved in the black theatre circuit, where she was billed as "Sweet
She began recording in 1921 for the Black Swan label,
continuing with that company through 1924. When she introduced
"Dinah" at the famous Plantation Club (Broadway and 50th Street) in
New York City in 1925, she met with such success that she was signed by Columbia
Records, for whom she was to make many of her most famous recordings during the
next decade. Her career continued to escalate in such black shows as Africana,
The Blackbirds of 1928 (and 1930) and Rhapsody in Black.
In 1929, she made her
film debut in the new talking films, singing "Am I Blue?" and
"Birmingham Bertha" in On with the Show, remade a few years later as
In 1933, her sensational rendition of "Stormy
Weather" at the Cotton Club made her the talk of the town; when Irving
Berlin heard her sing it, she was signed for his As Thousands Cheer, a revue
starring Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb. She stopped the show with "Heat
Wave" and "Suppertime" and was elevated to co-starring status.
At the same time, she became the first Negro to star in a sponsored
coast-to-coast radio show, accompanied by the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra. Her
Broadway career continued its spectacular ascent with the hit shows At Home
Abroad, Mamba 's Daughters, Cabin in the Sky, and Member of the Wedding. Later,
she filmed the latter two, appearing also in Gift of Gab, Cairo, Tales of
Manhattan, Pinky, and The Sound and the Fury. These films and her numerous
recordings remain a legacy for audiences too young to have been or heard this
legendary performer at her peak.
Her last years
were spent touring with the evangelist Billy Graham, still performing
occasionally, until her death on September 2, 1977, in Chatsworth, California.
Ethel Waters remains a towering figure in the history of
jazz and American music. (info from jazzateria.com)
The divine Ethel Waters sings her signature song 'Am I Blue'. This is from the 1929 film 'On With The Show'. This film was originally shot in 2 part Technicolor - now sadly lost with only a b&w print surviving. Try and imagine how great this number would have been in colour. Also seen in the cut-away shots is comedienne Louise Fazenda.