Ethel Waters: Remembering the Pioneering Black Singer and Actress
Despite a long, trailblazing career as a popular singer of jazz, swing, and pop music on the Broadway stage and in concerts, and Oscar and Emmy nominations, Ethel Waters is hardly known or recognized today among younger generations of movie and music lovers.
Waters became the second Black actress to be nominated for an Academy Award, in 1949 for Pinky, a movie about passing, in which white actress Jeanne Crain played a light-skinned girl. The first was Hattie McDaniel, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1939.
She was the first Black to star on her own television show and the first Black woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award.
Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1896, as a result of the rape of her teenage mother by John Waters, a pianist, and family acquaintance. Soon after she was born, her mother married Norman Howard, a railroad worker. Ethel used the surname Howard as a child and then reverted to her father’s name.
Raised in poverty by Sally Anderson, her grandmother, who worked as a maid, Waters never lived in the same place for more than 15 months. Later in life, recalling her painful past, she said “I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.”
Waters’ birth in the North and her peripatetic life exposed her to many cultures, which proved to be a blessing when she began performing. Waters married at the age of 13, but her husband was abusive, and she left him to become a maid in a Philadelphia hotel.
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 work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore.
After her start in Baltimore, Waters toured on the black vaudeville circuit, in her words “from nine until unconscious.” Despite her early success, she fell on hard times and joined a carnival traveling in freight cars headed for Chicago.
She then headed south to Atlanta, working in the same club as Bessie Smith. Recognizing her talent right away, Smith demanded that Waters not compete in singing blues opposite her. Waters conceded and sang ballads and popular songs.
In 1919, Waters moved to Harlem and became a performer in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. She acted in a blackface comedy, Hello 1919.
In 1921, Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record, for tiny Cardinal Records. She recorded for Black Swan from 1921 through 1923. Her contract with Harry Pace made her the highest-paid black recording artist at the time.
She first recorded for Columbia in 1925, achieving a hit with “Dinah.” She started working with Pearl Wright, and 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.
In 1933, Waters appeared in a satirical all-black film, Rufus Jones for President, which featured child performer Sammy Davis Jr., who would go on to have a glorious career. She then starred at the Cotton Club, where she sang “Stormy Weather,” a song that would become even more popular when performed by Lena Horne and others.
In 1933, she had a featured role in the successful Irving Berlin Broadway musical revue As Thousands Cheer with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick. She became the first black woman to integrate Broadway’s theater district, more than a decade after actor Charles Gilpin’s acclaimed performances in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in 1920.
She moved to Los Angeles to appear in the 1942 film Cairo. During the same year, she reprised her starring stage role as Petunia in the all-black film musical Cabin in the Sky, which launched the directing career of Vincente Minnelli and starring Lena Horne as the ingenue. Waters sang the Academy Award-nominated “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.”
Waters became the first Black artist to star in her own Variety show, which premiered on NBC on June 14, 1939, almost two decades before the debut of Nat King Cole‘s Show in 1956. It included a dramatic performance of the Broadway play Mamba’s Daughters, based on the Gullah community of South Carolina and produced with her in mind.
Waters was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky (1949) under the direction of Elia Kazan after the first director, John Ford, quit over disagreements with Waters. Kazan later referred to Waters as a “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 repeated their roles in Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 film version, for which Waters was nominated for her second Supporting Actress Oscar.
In 1950, Waters was the first African-American actress to star in a television series, Beulah, which aired on ABC from 1950 through 1952.
It was the first nationally broadcast weekly television series starring a Black in the leading role. She starred in the first year of the TV series before quitting in 1951, complaining that the portrayal of blacks was “degrading.” She was replaced by Louise Beavers in the second and third seasons.
Waters was married three times and had no children. At 13, she married Merritt “Buddy” Purnsley in 1909; they divorced in 1913. During the 1920s, Waters was involved in a romantic relationship with dancer Ethel Williams. The two were dubbed “The Two Ethels” and lived together in Harlem.
By 1955, Waters was in debt for back taxes, causing the IRS to seize royalties of her work. Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically. Waters died on September 1, 1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California.
Waters’ iconic 1933 recording of “Stormy Weather” was listed in the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board in 2003.
Her fans were disappointed when in 2004 Waters was finally approved for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but the star was never funded or installed.
Her first autobiography, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, published in 1951, was written with Charles Samuels, and was adapted for the stage by Larry Parr in 2005.