was born on
October 31, 1896, in Chester, PA., to a 12 year old mother, Louise
Anderson, who had been raped by a white man, John Waters. Although she
was raised by her maternal grandmother, she took her father's surname.
Reared in poverty, she left school at the age of 13 in order to support
herself through domestic housework. She died on
1, 1977, in Chatsworth, California. She was an American singer and
actress who brought black urban
into the mainstream.
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 theater, 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, coloring the lyrics with the proper emotion necessary to
express the feelings she wanted to convey.
Born October 31, 1896, in Chester, Pennsylvania, 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 theater circuit, where she was billed as
"Sweet Mama Stringbean."
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 Forty-Second