A photograph of Waters from her appearance in Cabin in the Sky, 1943.
October 31, 1896|
|Died||September 1, 1977
Chatsworth, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Uterine cancer|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park
(m. 1909; div. 1913)
Clyde E. Matthews
(m. 1929; div. 1933)
(m. 1938; div. 1945)
Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 - September 1, 1977) was an American singer and actress. Waters frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, but she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. Waters notable recordings include "Dinah", "Stormy Weather", "Taking a Chance on Love", "Heat Wave", "Supper Time", "Am I Blue?", "Cabin in the Sky", "I'm Coming Virginia", and her version of the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow". Waters was the second African American, after Hattie McDaniel, to be nominated for an Academy Award. She was the first African-American to star on her own television show, in 1939, and the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award, in 1962.
Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 1896 (although some sources states her birth year as 1900), as a result of the rape of her teenaged African-American mother, Louise Anderson (b. 1881- d. 1962) (believed to have been 13 years old at the time, although some sources indicate she may have been slightly older), by John Waters (b. 1878- d. 1901), a pianist and family acquaintance from a mixed-race middle-class background. He played no role in raising Ethel. Soon after she was born, her mother married Norman Howard, a railroad worker. Ethel used the surname Howard as a child, before reverting to her father's name. She was raised in poverty by her grandmother, Sally Anderson, who worked as a housemaid, along with two of her aunts and an uncle. Waters 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 cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family."
Waters grew tall, standing 5 feet 9.5 inches (1.765 m) in her teens. According to the jazz historian and archivist Rosetta Reitz, Waters's birth in the North and her peripatetic life exposed her to many cultures. Waters married at the age of 13, but her husband was abusive, and she soon left the marriage and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel, working for $4.75 per week. On her 17th birthday, she attended a costume party at a nightclub on Juniper Street. She was persuaded to sing two songs and impressed the audience so much that she was offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore. 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.
After her start in Baltimore, Waters toured on the black vaudeville circuit. As she described it later, "I used to work from nine until unconscious." Despite her early success, she fell on hard times and joined a carnival, traveling in freight cars along the carnival circuit and eventually reaching Chicago. Waters 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, where she worked in the same club with Bessie Smith. Smith demanded that Waters not compete in singing blues opposite her. Waters conceded and sang ballads and popular songs. Around 1919, Waters moved to Harlem and there became a celebrity performer in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
Her first Harlem job was at Edmond's Cellar, a club with a black patronage, where she specialized in popular ballads. She acted in a blackface comedy, Hello 1919. The jazz historian Rosetta Reitz pointed out that by the time Waters returned to Harlem in 1921, women blues singers were among the most powerful entertainers in the country. In 1921, Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record, for the tiny Cardinal Records. 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 preferred, often lacking "the damn-it-to-hell bass."
She recorded with Black Swan from 1921 through 1923. Her contract with Harry Pace of Black Swan made her the highest paid black recording artist at the time. In early 1924, Paramount bought the Black Swan label, and she stayed with Paramount through that year.
She first recorded for Columbia Records in 1925, achieving a hit with "Dinah", which was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. (From her start at Columbia, the label split her records initially with the more bluesey songs issued on their 14000-D race series and her versions of popular songs on their regular popular series.) Soon after, she 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 Vaudeville Circuit, a vaudeville circuit performing for white audiences and combined with screenings of silent movies. They received rave reviews in Chicago and earned the unheard-of salary of US$1,250 in 1928. In September 1926, Waters recorded "I'm Coming Virginia", composed by Donald Heywood with lyrics by Will Marion Cook. She is often wrongly attributed as the author. The following year, Waters first sang it in a production of Africana at Broadway's Daly's Sixty-Third Street Theatre. In 1929, Waters and Pearl Wright arranged the unreleased Harry Akst song "Am I Blue?", which then was used in the movie On with the Show and became a hit and her signature song.
Although she was considered a blues singer during the pre-1925 period, Waters sang in the vaudeville style of Mamie Smith, Viola McCoy, and Lucille Hegamin. While with Columbia, she introduced many popular standards, including "Dinah", "Heebie Jeebies", "Sweet Georgia Brown", "Someday, Sweetheart", "Am I Blue?" and "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" on the popular series, while she continued to sing blues ("West End Blues," "Organ Grinder Blues," etc.) on Columbia's 14000 race series. During the 1920s, Waters performed and 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. She remained with Columbia through 1931. She signed with Brunswick Records in 1932 and remained until 1933, when she went back to Columbia. She signed with Decca Records in late 1934 for only two sessions, and later a single session in early 1938. She recorded for the specialty label Liberty Music Shop Records in 1935 and again in 1940.
In 1933, Waters appeared a satirical all-black film, Rufus Jones for President, which featured the child performer Sammy Davis Jr. as Rufus Jones. 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." In 1933, she had a featured role in the wildly successful Irving Berlin Broadway musical revue As Thousands Cheer, with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick.
She became the first black woman to racially integrate Broadway's theater district, often referred to at the time as the Great White Way, more than a decade after actor Charles Gilpin's critically acclaimed performances in the plays of Eugene O'Neill beginning with The Emperor Jones in 1920.
Waters held three gigs at the time--As Thousands Cheer, as a singer for Jack Denny & His Orchestra on a national radio program and her continued work in nightclubs. All at once, she became the highest-paid performer of any race on Broadway. Despite this status, she had difficulty finding work. Waters moved to L.A. to appear in the 1942 film Cairo. That same year, she reprised her starring stage role of 1940 as Petunia in the successful all-black film musical Cabin in the Sky, directed by Vincente Minnelli, for which MGM cast Lena Horne as the ingenue. Conflicts arose around Minnelli swapping certain songs from the original script between Waters and Horne: 
The problems reached their peak over the number "Honey in the Honeycomb." Waters was originally to perform the song as a ballad while Horne would do a dance to it. But Horne broke her ankle and the songs were reversed. She got the ballad and Waters the dance. Ethel Waters did however sing the Academy Award nominated "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe."
In the same period, Waters also became the first African American to star in her own television show in 1939, contrary to popular belief, decades before Nat King Cole appeared on the small screen in 1956. The Ethel Waters Show, a 15-minute variety special, appeared on NBC on June 14, 1939; it included a dramatic performance of the Broadway play Mamba's Daughters, based in the Gullah community of South Carolina, produced specifically with her talent in mind. The play was based on a book of the same name by DuBose Heyward.
She began to work with Fletcher Henderson again in the late 1940s. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky (1949), under the direction of Elia Kazan, after the original director, John Ford, quit over disagreements with Waters. According to producer Darryl F. Zanuck, Ford "hated that old...woman (Waters)." Ford, Kazan stated, "didn't know how to reach Ethel Waters." Kazan later referred to Waters's "truly odd combination of old-time religiosity and free-flowing hatred.". In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance opposite Julie Harris in the play The Member of the Wedding. Waters and Harris reprised their roles in the 1952 film version, Member of the Wedding. In 1950, Waters was the first African American actress to star in the television series Beulah. It was first nationally broadcast weekly television series starring an African-American in the leading role appearing on ABC television from 1950 to 1953. Waters quit after complaining that the portrayal of blacks was "degrading" and was replaced by Louise Beavers in its third season. She later guest-starred in 1957 and 1959 on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. In the 1957 episode, she sang "Cabin in the Sky". Her appearance in a 1961 episode of Route 66 (TV series) garnered her a 1962 Primetime Emmy Award nomination, the first dramatic performance by a black performer so recognized (male or female), as well as the first black woman ever nominated for an Emmy.
Despite these successes, her brilliant career was fading. She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and she had difficulties with the IRS. Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically in the following years. In 1950-51 she wrote her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow with Charles Samuels, in which she wrote candidly about her life. She explained why her age had often been misstated: her friends had to sign a paper claiming Waters was four years younger than she was to get a group insurance deal; she stated that she was born in 1900. His Eye Is on the Sparrow was adapted for a stage production in which she was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson. In her second autobiography, To Me, It's Wonderful, Waters stated that she was born in 1896.
Waters married three times, had no children and was bisexual. Her first marriage was to Merritt "Buddy" Purnsley, whom she married at age 13 in 1909; they divorced in 1913. She later married Clyde Edwards Matthews in 1929, the union only lasted four years; divorcing in 1933. Waters third marriage was to Edward Mallory from 1938 until divorcing in 1945. Sometime during the 1920s, Waters was in a relationship with dancer Ethel Williams (d. December 21, 1891 - d. after 1961), the two women gaining the nickname of "Two Ethels". Waters was the great-aunt of the singer-songwriter Crystal Waters.
In 1938, Waters met famed artist, Luigi Lucioni, through their mutual friend, Carl Van Vechten. Lucioni asked Waters if he could paint her portrait and a sitting was arranged at his studio on Washington Square. Waters bought the finished portrait from Lucioni in 1939 for $500. Waters was at the height of her career in 1939 and was the first African American to have a starring role on Broadway and was already a jazz and blues legend. In her portrait, Waters wears a tailored red dress with a mink coat draped over the back of her chair. Lucioni positioned Waters with her arms tightly wrapped around her waist, a gesture that conveys a sense of vulnerability as if she were trying to protect herself. In 2017, the Huntsville Museum of Art (HMA) acquired the Portrait of Ethel Waters. HMA Executive Director Christopher J. Madkour and historian Dr. Stuart Embury, were able to track down the whereabouts of the painting. The painting was thought to be lost since it had not been viewed by the public since 1942, but the two traced it to a private residence in 2016. The owner graciously allowed the Huntsville Museum of Art to display Portrait of Ethel Waters in the exhibition, American Romantic: The Art of Luigi Lucioni, where it was viewed by the public for the first time in over 70 years. The Museum successfully negotiated the purchase of the painting and, thanks in part to the generosity of the Huntsville community, Lucioni's Portrait of Ethel Waters is now on public display at the Huntsville Museum of Art in Huntsville, Alabama.
In her later years, Waters often toured with the preacher Billy Graham on his "crusades". Waters died on September 1, 1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer, kidney failure, and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California. Waters is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale).
|1921||"Down Home Blues"||5|
|"There'll Be Some Changes Made"||5|
|1922||"Spread Yo' Stuff"||7|
|1925||"Sweet Georgia Brown"||6|
|"I've Found a New Baby"||11|
|1927||"I'm Coming, Virginia"||10|
|1929||"Am I Blue?"||1|
|"True Blue Lou"||15|
|1931||"Three Little Words"||8|
|"I Got Rhythm"||17|
|"You Can't Stop Me from Loving You"||13|
|"Shine On, Harvest Moon"||9|
|"River, Stay 'Way from My Door"||18|
|"Don't Blame Me"||6|
|"A Hundred Years from Today"||7|
|1934||"Come Up and See Me Sometime"||9|
|"Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable to Lunch Today)"||19|
|1938||"You're a Sweetheart"||16|
Three recordings by Waters were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old and have "qualitative or historical significance."
|2007||Christian Music Hall of Fame||Inducted|
|1994||29-cents commemorative stamp||U.S. Postal Service||Honoree||Photo (Scott #2851)|
|1983||Gospel Music Hall of Fame||Inducted|
|1962||Outstanding Single Performance
by an Actress in a Series
|Emmy Awards||Nominee||Route 66
"Goodnight Sweet Blues"
|1949||Best Supporting Actress||Academy Award||Nominee||Pinky (film)|