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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
“Besides being important in her own right, she is the link between blues and jazz,” said Morgenstern, standing in a room crammed to the ceiling with long shelves of meticulously organized LPs and 78s. “She paid a lot of attention to Louis—everyone did—but then everyone paid a lot of attention to her . Billie took key songs from her repertoire, even took blues lyrics she had written and recorded them as ‘Billie’s Blues.’ Lena is a carbon copy of Ethel; just listen to both their records of ‘Stormy Weather.’ ” Then why wasn’t she more appreciated? “Because everything is handed down,” he answered. “People do little independent listening any more; it’s all received wisdom. She never made the list. She falls between the cracks; the cabaret world doesn’t recognize her either.”
He taped a radio special on her for a jazz station a few years ago, but, like me, he could recall only one younger jazz writer who has written about her in the last fifteen years: Gary Giddins. Giddins praised her singing but concluded that she “didn’t swing,” a remark that is sure to have killed off any new interest in her in among jazz fans. Morgenstern was as bewildered by the criticism as I was. “Jazz musicians loved her singing,” he said. He used the past tense, I noticed.
We talked about all the different sounds she could get with her voice. “Did you ever hear her Louis Armstrong imitation?” he asked.
“On ‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,’ isn’t it?” I said.
He nodded and gleefully showed me the entry under that record in the international jazz discography. A respected jazz annotator, confused by Waters’s convincing low register and Louis Armstrong phrasing, has listed an “unidentified male vocalist” as part of the band personnel.
He pulled out records spanning more than fifty years. One, titled "(Not on the First Night, Baby) Maybe Not at All,” is a crackly 78 from !924, when she and Bessie Smith and Clara Smith were the top stars’ on the Columbia race label. After singing the first chorus her own way, cheeky young Ethel calls out the two reigning blues queens’ names and does a chorus in the style of each. I wondered how the (unrelated) Smith women, twice as big, twice as loud, and twice as well established as she was, reacted to that . I listened to everything, from her first release on Cardinal, “At the New Jump Steady Ball,” to a 1977 religious label’s release of her taped reminiscences on her early life, which are interspersed with her performances of hymns. I skipped the hymns but was fascinated with the sound of her speaking voice as she described her childhood. She laughed often and loud, even when she told how her aunts had bought her new shoes one day and pawned them for liquor the next.
It is only recently that a few Ethel Waters CDs have appeared in record stores, and all but one are imports from small European jazz labels. I told Morgenstern that my friend Chris Ellis (who first introduced her to me) had just sent me a new release from Holland on a label called, appropriately, Timeless, a CD with twenty-two songs Waters recorded while she was singing at her best, from 1929 to 1939. CDs seem out of place at the institute, probably one of the last bastions of the 33 and 78, but Morgenstern admitted he wouldn’t mind having a copy.
He let me stay long after closing time so I could hear everything, and when I finally left the building, night had fallen. The Newark streets, teeming with students when I arrived, suddenly seemed deserted and sinister, and my city dweller’s instinct told me I ought to be alert to danger. I felt strangely safe, though, protected by the sound of Ethel Waters’5 singing, still so lively and clear in my ears she seemed to be right there with me. And in truth, she always is.