Born October 31, 1895, in Chester, PA; died of cancer September 1, 1977, in Chatsworth, CA; daughter of John Weley Waters and Louise Tar Anderson; married Merritt "Buddy" Pernsley c. 1910; married Clyde Edward Matthews c. 1928.
Singer and actress Ethel Waters had an extremely difficult childhood. In fact, she opened her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow with these words: "I was never a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. I never felt I belonged. I was always an outsider.... Nobody brought me up." She was conceived in violence and raised in violence. She had a minimal education at best, dropping out of school early to go to work as a maid. But despite her inauspicious beginnings, Ethel Waters made history, garnering many laurels and many "firsts." She was the first black woman to appear on radio (on April 21, 1922); the first black woman to star on her own at the Palace Theater in New York (in 1925); the first black woman to star in a commercial network radio show (in 1933); the first singer to introduce 50 songs that became hits (in 1933); the first black singer to appear on television (in 1939); and the first black woman to star on Broadway in a dramatic play (also in 1939). She is remembered as much for her fine acting as for her expressive singing--and even more for her spirit.
When Waters's mother, Louise Anderson, a quiet, religious girl, was in her early teens, a local boy named John Waters raped her at knifepoint. Shortly after Waters was born, Anderson married Norman Howard, a railroad worker. Waters went by the name Howard for a few years and used several other names, depending on whom she was living with, but finally settled on her father's name.
Because of the manner in which Waters was conceived, her mother found it hard to accept the child, so the little girl was sent went to live with her grandmother, Sally Anderson, the woman whom Waters would really think of as her mother, and her two aunts, Vi and Ching. Sally Anderson, a domestic worker, moved frequently to find employment and was rarely at home; Waters's aunts usually ignored her, but what attention they paid her was most often physically abusive. Waters was exceptionally bright and enjoyed near-perfect recall; when she was able to attend school, she enjoyed learning. Mostly, though, she grew up on the street.
Waters started cleaning houses professionally when she was about eight. As a teenager, she dropped out of school to work as a substitute maid, dishwasher, and waitress in local hotels and apartment houses. One night in 1917, she sang at a party at a local bar, Jack's Rathskeller. Two vaudeville producers heard her and convinced her to sign on with them. With little regret, she left her job and began her career.
Waters had a sweet voice, but even more attractive was her ability to imbue a song with emotion--when she sang the blues, the audience felt her pain; when she sang humorous songs, they forgot their cares for the moment. She was unusual on the vaudeville circuit because she did not sing the traditional blues in the time-honored style, popularized by the great Bessie Smith; she sang instead in a light, clear voice, not in the customary deep, rough, southern blues way. Waters quickly became a sensation. Within two years, she was appearing on Broadway and touring in musical revues. In 1921, she began a fruitful recording career, eventually waxing over 250 songs.
The 1920s and '30s kept Waters working hard. She arrived in New York City in 1919 and performed in Harlem nightclubs like her favorite, Edmond Johnson's Cellar. She appeared in musical shows, including Hello 1919!, which was her first, and frequently toured with both musicals and vaudeville acts. Until the mid-1920s, she performed exclusively in black shows and clubs for black audiences and had little desire to move to the more lucrative white-audience theater circuit.
But in 1925 her friend and colleague Earl Dancer convinced her to audition for a white Chicago theater, where she ultimately became a great success at a higher salary than she had ever earned. "Dozens of people in show business say they discovered me. This always irritates me," she wrote in His Eye Is on the Sparrow. "[Club owner] Edmond's piano player, Lou Henly, was the first one to get me to sing different types of songs. Earl Dancer pushed me into the white time." Whatever her route, Waters had arrived; she was the first black singer to break into the "white time."
Life was better, but far from easy. When Waters performed in the South, she faced deeply entrenched racist attitudes. Once, after she had been seriously hurt in a car accident, she lay neglected in the hospital and almost lost her leg. Another time, she was forced to flee a town minutes before she would have been lynched. Even in some northern locales, blacks did not fare much better. In her autobiography, Waters casually described her working conditions at Chicago's Monogram Theater. "That was the theater," she wrote, "where you had to dress way downstairs with the stoker [heater] and come up to the stage climbing slave-ship stairs. While working there I took sick from the migraine headaches I'd had off and on for years. The air was very bad down there where the stoker was." And yet Waters never grew bitter over the hardships she suffered. Indeed, her autobiography maintains a distinctively matter-of-fact tone; it is both funny and sad, a touching testimony to human survival and dignity.
During the 1930s, film became an important part of Waters's career; in her first motion picture, 1929's On With the Show, she sang "Am I Blue," a tune that would later become a hit for her. She also made a few short feature films for Vitaphone studios in New York, including Rufus Jones for President (1933) and Bubbling Over (1934), all the while continuing to perform in stage and club shows throughout the country and to make records.
In 1939 Waters stunned the world when she debuted as a dramatic actress playing Hagar in DuBose Heyward's Mamba's Daughter. She longed to play the role after having read the book--before the play had even been written. "Hagar had held me spellbound," she wrote in His Eye Is on the Sparrow. "In Hagar was all my mother's shock, bewilderment, and insane rage at being hurt.... But Hagar, fighting on in a world that had wounded her so deeply, was more than my mother to me. She was all Negro women lost and lonely in the White man's antagonistic world." Ethel held audiences spellbound with her portrayal of Hagar; at the end of her first performance, she received 17 curtain calls. As had been so with her singing, she was able to touch those in the house with the very essence of her character.
While she was one of the highest-paid performers in New York in the 1930s, inexplicably in the 1940s, Waters had trouble finding work. In 1942 she moved to Los Angeles to appear in the film Cairo and stayed on to film Cabin in the Sky in 1943. After that, the roles dried up; substantial dramatic parts for black women in films and on stage were almost nonexistent. And when she returned to New York, she found that the nightclub scene was changing and even had trouble finding work as a singer. She hit professional bottom in 1948, working only a few weeks that year.
Then, in 1949, Waters's luck changed. She played Granny in the film Pinky and received an Academy Award nomination for her work. A year later, she opened to great critical acclaim in the play Member of the Wedding. In 1953, she received another Academy Award nomination, for her work in the film version of Member. Although she continued to sing, her acting career received considerably more notice.
Despite her success, by the end of the 1950s, Waters began to question the meaningfulness of her career. She had always been a religious woman, but after seeing the Billy Graham Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, she rededicated herself and her talents to the glory of God. She joined the Graham Crusade and toured extensively with it. She continued some secular work all of her life, appearing in The Sound and the Fury and The Heart Is a Rebel in the late '50s and doing occasional guest spots at clubs and on television, but her main focus was the Crusade. She sang with Graham until cancer overtook her in 1977.
Ethel Waters was a great singer because she was a brilliant actress; she sold everything she sang to the audience, making them feel each emotion as if it were their own. After establishing her singing career, she brought her formidable abilities to the legitimate theater to the highest critical acclaim. In her best work, she played characters like herself, who fought hard against a cruel world. In the last decades of her life, she used the same talents to express her religious devotion. No matter where she performed, no matter what or whether she sang, she touched people with the pain, humor, and above all, the dignity of her spirit.
by Robin Armstrong
Ethel Waters's Career
Began work as a maid, c. 1903; worked as substitute maid, dishwasher, and waitress in local hotels and apartment houses; c. 1908-1914; sang and toured vaudeville circuit, 1917-mid-1930s; began recording for Cardinal and Black Swan labels, 1921. Appeared in stage musicals, including Hello 1919!, 1919; Jump Steady, 1922; Plantation Revue, 1925; Black Bottom, 1926; Miss Calico, 1926-27; Paris Bound, 1927; Ethel Waters Broadway Revue, 1928; Rhapsody in Black, 1930, 1933; From Broadway Back to Harlem, 1932; Stormy Weather, 1933; As Thousands Cheer, 1934; and Cabin in the Sky, 1940. Appeared in dramas, including Mamba's Daughter, 1939; Member of the Wedding, 1950; and The Voice of Strangers, 1956. Appeared in films, including On With the Show, 1929; Rufus Jones for President, 1933; Cairo, 1942; Tales of Manhattan, 1942; Stage Door Canteen, 1943; Cabin in the Sky, 1943; Pinky, 1949; Member of the Wedding, 1953; The Heart Is a Rebel, 1956; The Sound and the Fury, 1959; and Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, 1963. Appeared on television programs, including series Beulah, ABC-TV, 1950-51. Author of His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Greenwood Press, 1951, and To Me It's Wonderful, Harper & Row, 1972.
Ethel Waters's Awards
Negro Actors Guild Award, 1949, for film Pinky; Academy Award nominations, 1949, for Pinky, and 1953, for Member of the Wedding; New York Drama Critics Award for best actress, 1950, for Member of the Wedding; Tamiment Institute Award, 1951, for His Eye Is on the Sparrow; St. Genesius Medal from American National Theater and Academy, 1951; U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, 1994.
- Selective Works
- Ethel Waters on Stage and Screen (1925-40) CBS, 1989.
- Cabin in the Sky Milan Records, 1992.
- Ethel Waters 1925-1926 Classic Records, 1992.
- Ethel Waters 1926-1929 Classic Records, 1993.
- Who Said Blackbirds Are Blue? Sandy Hook.
- DeKorte, Juliann, Ethel Waters: Finally Home, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1978.
- Knaack, Twila, Ethel Waters: I Touched a Sparrow, Word Books, 1978.
- Morehead, Philip D., and Anne MacNeil, The New American Dictionary of Music, Dutton, 1991.
- Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
- The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking/Penguin Inc., 1989.
- Slonimsky, Nicolas, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer, 1992.
- Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982.
- Waters, Ethel, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Greenwood Press, 1951, reprinted, 1978.
- Waters, Ethel, To Me It's Wonderful, Harper & Row, 1972.
- Periodicals American Studies, Fall 1990.
- Billboard, April 16, 1988.
- Jazz Journal International, December 1988.
- Reader's Digest, December 1972.
- Variety, January 27, 1988; April 13, 1988.