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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
In her early teens Waters began doing housecleaning, and when her mother became ill, she took over her job as a hotel chambermaid, which she loved. In a newspaper interview she said: “I had about a half hour to clean up each room, but I’d hurry and get them done in about ten minutes, and that left me twenty minutes to act. I’d get in front of the mirror and the show would begin. There I’d be, mugging and acting for all I was worth.…I’d get so carried away with whatever part I was making up for myself that I’d act all over the room and forget what I was doing.…I’d even whistle and applaud for myself when I got through, and then I’d come back and take a bow.” Still, she had no ambition for a stage career. She was so battle-scarred from her years in the streets and in vermin-infested shacks that her one goal was to become a “lady’s maid and companion” for a rich woman who would feed, clothe, and shelter her and take her around the world.
In 1917, egged on by friends, she entered a talent contest at Jack’s Rathskeller, a local tavern. “I had a sweet, bell-like voice. On a clear night you could hear me singing from five blocks away. However, I seldom depended on my voice to win social recognition. I had developed into a really agile shimmy shaker. I sure knew how to roll and quiver, and my hips would become whirling dervishes.” She was spotted by two black vaudeville performers who offered her ten dollars a week (twice her maid’s pay but considerably less than the twenty-five they pocketed for her work) to join their tour. She chose to do a song she’d heard a female impersonator do and thus became the first woman ever to sing the number now associated with Bessie Smith, “St. Louis Blues.” At first teamed with two other girls, as the Hill Sisters, she was soon singled out by audiences and nicknamed Sweet Mama Stringbean for her winsome smile and tall, skinny frame. The Hill girls got jealous, and she broke with them and went solo. Conditions on the black vaudeville circuit were uncomfortable and unpredictable but no worse than home. Understandably wary, she hung on to her chambermaid job by putting in a substitute whenever she took off on a tour.
Still barely twenty, she found herself in Atlanta on a bill with the great Bessie Smith, who was then at the height of her popularity. The theater manager warned her not to provoke Bessie by singing any blues, but when an angry audience clamored for Waters’s “St. Louis Blues,” he panicked and changed his mind. “When I closed my engagement in that theater Miss Bessie called me to her. ‘Come here, long goody,’ she said. ‘You ain’t so bad. It’s only that I never dreamed that anyone would be able to do this to me in my own territory with my own people. And you know damn well that you can’t sing worth a __.’”
One can only imagine how strange Waters’s singing must have seemed to Bessie. The Empress of the Blues had a huge, powerful voice and a hulking, dignified presence. In those years any aspiring blues singer began by imitating Bessie and her peers, but Waters, with her higher, clearer, more narrowly focused voice, must have sounded very different without even trying. A much more delicate singer by her physical limitations alone, she had to play the same rough-and-tumble venues they did. “Rugged individualists all, [audiences] did whatever they pleased while you were killing yourself on the stage. They ran up and down the aisles, yelling greetings to friends and sometimes having fights.…But they also were the most appreciative audiences in the world if they liked you. They’d scream, stomp, and applaud until the whole building shook.” The response to her new style of blues singing was immediate. “I’d sit there, rocking sadly and slowly.…Then I would sing ‘St. Louis Blues,’ but very softly. It was the first time that kind of Negro audience ever let my kind of low singing get by. And you could have heard a pin drop.”
By her own account Waters never climbed a rung of the career ladder in those early decades without being shoved. She lacked the confidence to try her luck in New York, but she finally took a week’s work in a Harlem stock show. An acquaintance got her a job in a tough uptown dive, Edmond’s Cellar, that was noted for its talented young entertainers and musicians. She started out singing her usual repertoire, “ungodly raw” songs. “I used to work from nine until unconscious…when I tried to sing anything but the double-meaning songs, they would say, ‘Oh come on, Ethel! Get hot!’” But a new pianist named Lou Henley challenged her to tackle not just “popular” but “cultural” songs, downtown hits like “My Buddy” and “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.” Unsure at first of her ability to interpret these more complex numbers, she gained confidence when the Edmond’s Cellar audience responded enthusiastically. She learned she “could characterize and act out these songs just as I did my blues.”