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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
She slowed down “Dinah,” sang it with such happiness it was almost sad, and made it the first international hit ever to emerge from an American nightclub.
After a couple of jobs in unsuccessful all-black stage shows, she returned to Edmond’s and began to make “race” records. She had a hit with “Down Home Blues” in 1921 and took off on a tour of her old stomping grounds, the black theater circuit—this time with better billing and pay. The Harlem showman Earl Dancer now urged her to try the “white time.” She said no. He persisted. Finally, “I did it just to prove what a flop I would be. I thought white people weren’t going to get me, wouldn’t understand my type of work—and I wasn’t going to change it.” He brought her new songs, including “My Man” and “He’s Funny That Way,” and got her a Chicago booking. She was an instant hit, hailed by white critics as “the greatest artist of her race and generation.”
In 1924 Florence Mills, the beautiful and beloved black star of the Plantation Club revue in Manhattan, went on tour, and Waters was offered her spot. Characteristically she turned it down, claiming she couldn’t possibly make good taking the place of such a big name. Once again Earl Dancer made her change her mind. When the authors of the new song “Dinah” performed it for her, she found their version too fast and too corny and got their permission to work out her own interpretation. With her own pianist she slowed it down, sang it with such grateful happiness that it was almost sad, and ad-libbed an improvised chorus. “Dinah” was a sensation in the new revue, and went on to become the first international song hit ever to emerge from an American nightclub. Song pluggers from sheetmusic companies, believing that her unique interpretations could ensure the success of any song, flooded her with material. (Time proved them right; in 1933 she was given an award by the Popular Song Association for having introduced fifty songs that became hits.)
Dancer now talked her into financing her own stage shows with him as producer, but none did particularly well, and the partnership became a casualty of their tangled financial dealings. On her own again she worked steadily in downtown nightclubs, where for the first time she began making friends with white people, mostly artists who lived and worked in Greenwich Village studios. “These bohemians were like my own people, and I liked them. Your color or your bank account made no difference to them. They liked you for yourself. They were doing work they loved, kept what hours they pleased.” Through the sculptor Antonio Salemme she met Paul Robeson and Rex Stout. The photographer, socialite, and novelist Carl Van Vechten, who bought a Salemme bronze bust of her, introduced her to Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson, Alexander Woollcott, Cole Porter, Noîl Coward, and Somerset Maugham.
She mentions in passing three marriages, including one when she was in the sixth grade, but never bothers to describe her husbands or even exactly when they came into and went out of her life. She had no children and never writes of wanting any, though she states in her book, “Being a mother is what makes a real life for a woman.” She did adopt a goddaughter, Algretta Holmes, and took her on a long and relaxed trip to Europe. But as soon as she returned to the United States and took up her career again, Algretta was struck with infantile paralysis, and after she recovered, her natural mother reclaimed her.
The personnel on her Columbia recordings during those years is a who’s who of jazz: Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang. She seems surprised at how much they liked her singing. “I never had a singing lesson, and I never learned to play anything or to read music.…I would just sing it the way it made me feel.” In her one effort to explain her unique style in her book she wrote: “My music is all queer little things that come into my head. I feel these little trills and things deep inside of me, and I sing them that way.” Her interest was, as it had been from childhood, in the lyrics first, the music second. “A song is a story—that’s how it is to me—and I sing it so it tells the story.”
Booked into the Cotton Club, “the class spot in Harlem that drew the white trade,” she was given a demonstration of a new Harold Arlen song. Again she disliked the arrangement. “They were using a lot of mechanical devices to get storm effects.…I told them that the piece should have more to do with human emotions and should be expressed that way instead of with noise-making machines.” She took the lead sheet home to work it out her own way. For inspiration she drew not, as the lyrics might suggest, on an unhappy love affair but on “my misery and confusion…the misunderstandings in my life I couldn’t straighten out, the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted.” The response to her dramatic interpretation of “Stormy Weather” became the talk of the show-business world and led to a turning point in her career. Irving Berlin came in to hear her and called the next day to offer her a featured role in his new Broadway revue.