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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
Performers who saw her never forgot the experience. Bobby Short recalls her as “the greatest black performer I have ever seen.…I was awestruck.”
Challenged by a strong melody and a well-crafted lyric, she transformed herself from a gifted song-and-dance girl into a first-rate artist, inventive, expressive, and unique. She chose mostly upbeat numbers, but she was deeply moving in songs about loneliness and the search for meaning in life. My two favorite records are “Harlem on My Mind” and “Thief in the Night.” The first, written especially for her in 1933 by Irving Berlin for his revue As Thousands Cheer , is a parody of the black dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker, who had by then moved to Paris and become rich and famous. The lyrics are humorous (“I go to supper with a French marquis/Each evening after the show / My lips begin to whisper, / ‘Mon chèri’ / But my heart keeps singin’ Hi-de-ho”), but Waters brings a wistfulness to her interpretation that elevates the number from the specific to the universal, communicating a longing (perhaps, by then, her own) for the simple life every successful person must leave behind. “Thief in the Night,” tailored to her talents by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz for their 1935 stage show At Home Abroad , is a tuneful but melodramatic torch song rescued by her second-chorus patter, a rebuke to her faithless lover spoken with splitsecond timing and salty wit (“You dirty double-crossin’ Edgecombe Avenue earthworm.…You’re everything that begins with the letter ’s’ and the letter ’b’”). It reveals her as a founding foremother not only of jazz singing but of rap music. Small wonder that Sophie Tucker, who began recording ten years before Waters, went to her for lessons in song delivery.
After her brilliance and spontaneity on these mid-thirties treasures, her singing—to my ears, anyway—loses its naturalness. She begins to sound mannered and actressy in her interpretations. By the time of her recordings of “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Cabin in the Sky,” in 1940, her once-perfect balance of singing and acting has tipped dangerously toward the latter. Her once relaxed time feel has stiffened, and she overemphasizes rhymes instead of just enjoying them. For the first time she seems to be consciously working at putting a number over. Her ability to lose herself in a song, becoming the character rather than playing it, is gone.
As my own singing career progressed, I expanded my repertoire to include songs written after World War II, but I never lost my love for the early records that had inspired me to become a singer. After a ten-year absence from the United States, I summoned up the courage to move to New York, knowing that in order to keep growing artistically, I would have to live and work in the birthplace of the music I loved. Beautifully packaged reissues of Ethel Waters records were by now available as LPs, but they sold poorly, and they seemed to pass unnoticed by the jazz musicians I worked with and by the music press and radio broadcasters. I met many people who loved good singing as much as I did, but when they talked about their favorites, Ethel Waters’s name never came up. I decided that singers of the late 1920s and early 1930s were just too quaintsounding to appeal to most listeners, especially in contrast with the vocalists who became superstars in the forties and still permeate our consciousness with their more modern-sounding recordings of classic pop standards.
I did some reading and discovered that experts, at least, recognized Waters as the major figure she was. The 1991 Roy Hemming and David Hajdu book Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop introduces her brief chapter with a quote from Lena Home: “Ethel Waters was the mother of us all,” and cites her pivotal role in both pop music and African-American culture. The English musicologist Henry Pleasants, in The Great American Popular Singers (1974), calls her, “along with Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong…a fountainhead of all that is finest and most distinctive in American popular singing…a transitional figure and a towering one, summing up all that had been accumulated stylistically from minstrel show, ragtime and coon song, and anticipating the artful, jazz-touched Afro-American inflections of the swing era.” He assesses her voice as unexceptional; her true gift lay, he writes, in making “resourceful use of what she had"—in particular her excellent diction and her ability to “milk both rhyme and melody for all they could yield” and use “jazzflavoured backing as props and foils for her own rhythmic devices and inspirations.” Acknowledging that she’s underrated, he wonders if it’s because “she made it all sound so natural and easy and inevitable that the listener was unaware of any physical or intellectual accomplishment or of the mastering of any special difficulties,” and he gives as an example a sequence of perfectly pitched octave skips she breezes through as a variation on the melody of “You Can’t Stop Me From Loving You,” a feat “that would score as pure virtuosity for a classical singer.”