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The Mother Of Us All
Ethel Waters was an innovative and terrifically influential singer, and she broke through racial barriers in movies, theater, nightclubs, radio, film, and television, opening doors for everyone who came after her. She deserves to be much better remembered.
February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
The greatest nostalgia of all is that which we feel for what we have never known,” an elderly English journalist told me when I wondered aloud why I, a 1960s rock ’n’ roll child, had become obsessed with 1930s jazz. I first discovered old Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith records as a student in Paris in the early 1970s, and I listened to each song over and over before going on to the next. I camped out with sandwiches in art cinemas there, sitting through repeated showings of Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley musicals, scribbling down lyrics and memorizing tunes. In 1972 I abandoned my work as a writer-translator and moved to London, where I dressed in vintage clothing from the Portobello Road market and eked out a living in jazz pubs, singing Billie Holiday numbers with British swing bands. When I sang that music, I—till then a rather gloomy and disenfranchised soul—felt lucky just to be alive and grateful to have been born American. It seemed to me a miracle that my ears had carried me beyond the initial shock of the old and into the glorious and sonorous world of pre-war jazz, so rich with emotion, variety, and colorful personalities. Not only had I chanced to find and fall in love with it, now I had actually managed to become part of it. It was as if I’d been wandering aimlessly all my life and then suddenly turned up exactly where I belonged.
But that year, in the tiny Great Titchfield Street flat of the musicologist and singer Chris Ellis, I heard a remarkable record by a woman I couldn’t place at all. By 1975 I had listened to so much music of the 1920s and 1930s that I could identify almost any singer of the period after three or four notes. The more I listened, the more puzzled I was. In her voice I heard the sexual swagger of Mae West, the presence and directness of Sophie Tucker, the subtle humor and immaculate diction of Mildred Bailey, the spontaneity, poignancy, and rapport with musicians of Billie Holiday, the vibrancy of Ella Fitzgerald, the jazz feeling, swing, and timing of the Boswell Sisters, the throwaway humor of Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt, the intelligence and storytelling ability of a gifted monologist, and the use of the voice so flexible and imaginative and joyous I couldn’t compare it to anyone else I’d ever heard. “It’s Ethel Waters,” Ellis told me.
“Wasn’t she an actress who played old ladies?” I asked.
“Only much later on. Long before that, she was the first modern pop singer. Everyone you mentioned learned from her.”
I immersed myself in her records. Her 1925 versions of “Dinah” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” must have seemed revolutionary at the time, with her total departure from written melody and conventional phrasing on the second choruses and her moaning horn sounds. “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” from the same year, displayed the pride, sarcasm, and strength of character of Bessie Smith, though Waters’s voice was much smaller, sweeter, and more agile. “West End Blues” sent me flying to the Louis Armstrong version. I was sure that she had listened closely to Louis, borrowed his inventions of scat singing, kamikaze timing and phrasing, and alternating vocal instrumental (“swap”) choruses, then stamped them with her own distinctive personality. Louis sings no words, just a bluesy scat chorus. Waters sings the entire lyric, the confession of a woman who has murdered her cheating lover, then moves so fluidly into a somber scat chorus that she never breaks the mood. I checked the release dates. Sure enough, her record followed his by only two months.
I imagined her as a young singer back then, absorbing everyone and everything around her and instinctively knowing what to use and what to discard as she forged her own distinctive and totally new style. As well as she performed them, I soon tired of the sexual humor of her earlier songs, timeless ditties with titles like “Organ Grinder Blues,” “My Handy Man,” and “Do What You Did Last Night.” These, I knew, were required repertoire for black singers on 1920s “race” record labels. I found that, as the English musicologist Basil Blackwell wrote, “the years of her consummate artistry coincide with her discovery of the master composers of Tin Pan Alley”: Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, and those other songwriters now universally acknowledged as the finest of our centurv.