- Historic Sites
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
I was glad to find her validated as, in the words of the music documentarist Gene Davis, “the key transitional figure between rural blues and urban pop.” But I wished that someone had mentioned how much fun she is, with her adventurous repertoire of songs and sounds, her slurs and swoops and growls and moans, and her witty imitations of musical instruments and other singers and actors. And what about her wickedly funny throwaway lines? On her cover version of Mae West’s “Come Up and See Me Some Time” she mutters, “Please wire Mae West, tell her stay west—she’s an eskimo.” And on “You Can’t Do What My Last Man Did” she sings the title phrase with broad patrician a ’s and crows, “Come an’ get me, Ethel Barrymore!”
Performers who saw her work never forgot the experience. In a newspaper interview Carol Channing dates her own theatrical ambitions from the day she first saw Waters in a 1933 Broadway matinee. “When she began to sing, I got so thrilled it was embarrassing…I lost my breath. I was throbbing all over. It was like being in love…it was beyond judgment. And I was hooked.” The cabaret artist Bobby Short saw and met her at the RKO Palace Theater when he was a child performer in Chicago. “She was the greatest black performer I have ever seen,” he says. He remembers her in black velvet and pearls. “I saw her from a distance, and I was awestruck. She was every bit the star in her demeanor, carriage, and performance. You really knew you had met somebody. And God knows where it all came from.”
As Short implies, Waters’s background would seem to have precluded not only her emergence as a great artist but her very survival. Her 1951 autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, was a best seller at the time and is still one of the best show-business books ever published. A new edition in paperback (Da Capo Press, 1992) reveals that it was actually written by the journalist Charles Samuels, who interviewed her almost daily for four months. It is to Samuels’s credit that the story he tells is unmistakably in her voice, for her amusing way with words and her precarious blend of bluntness and piety are apparent even in newspaper interviews dating as far back as 1933. Though maddeningly evasive or inaccurate about facts, dates, and the many men in the first half of her life, it is a vivid account of her brutal childhood in the red-light district of Philadelphia and of the formative years of her career. (Most of the quotations that follow are from the book.)
Born in 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania, south of Philadelphia, to a twelve-year-old rape victim who never fully recovered from the experience, she was raised mainly by her grandmother, who worked as a live-in servant but kept Ethel, her mother, and her two alcoholic aunts in a “rickety shanty in the Bloody Eighth Ward.” “I just ran wild as a little girl. I was bad, always a leader of the street gang in stealing and general hell-raising. By the time I was seven I knew all about sex and life in the raw. I could outcurse any stevedore and took a sadistic pleasure in shocking people.” Tall, smart, and tough, Waters was the ringleader of a gang of poor neighborhood kids who stole food to eat and sell and ran errands for the “sporting people” in the area. The children, black, Hungarian, Jewish, and Chinese, also served as lookouts, who burst into innocent children’s songs to alert prostitutes and petty criminals to the presence of vice squads in the area.
Singing was taken for granted in her family. Singing and dancing “were nothing among us.…They came natural as breathing.” Her aunts sang her songs whenever she asked to be told a story, and she remembers that even as a small child she was fascinated to find that in every song there was a story, if she just listened closely enough.
In elementary school she excelled in “elocution” and in “mimicry” but distressed teachers with her “roughness and profanity.” Her grandmother put her in Catholic school for two years, and there she blossomed “under the patience and kindness of the nuns,” developing a sense of right and wrong and feeling protected and encouraged for the first time in her life. Her teenage mother, religious but not Catholic, took her out of the school, but the experience would shape her later life.
She was so battlescarred from her childhood on the streets that her one goal early in her career was to become a “lady’s maid and companion.”
To keep her off the streets, her grandmother permitted her to go to one of the few respectable neighborhood dance halls, and she proved such a talented and tireless dancer she was given free admission in exchange for dancing lessons. As often as possible she went to performances by black stock companies at the Standard Theater and sat in the back rows of ten-cent storefront theaters to watch show after show. She would then show off for her gang, imitating everything she could remember.