February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
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.
The greatest nostalgia of all is that which we feel for what we have never known,” an elderly English journalist told me when I wondered aloud why I, a 1960s rock ’n’ roll child, had become obsessed with 1930s jazz. I first discovered old Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith records as a student in Paris in the early 1970s, and I listened to each song over and over before going on to the next. I camped out with sandwiches in art cinemas there, sitting through repeated showings of Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley musicals, scribbling down lyrics and memorizing tunes. In 1972 I abandoned my work as a writer-translator and moved to London, where I dressed in vintage clothing from the Portobello Road market and eked out a living in jazz pubs, singing Billie Holiday numbers with British swing bands. When I sang that music, I—till then a rather gloomy and disenfranchised soul—felt lucky just to be alive and grateful to have been born American. It seemed to me a miracle that my ears had carried me beyond the initial shock of the old and into the glorious and sonorous world of pre-war jazz, so rich with emotion, variety, and colorful personalities. Not only had I chanced to find and fall in love with it, now I had actually managed to become part of it. It was as if I’d been wandering aimlessly all my life and then suddenly turned up exactly where I belonged.
But that year, in the tiny Great Titchfield Street flat of the musicologist and singer Chris Ellis, I heard a remarkable record by a woman I couldn’t place at all. By 1975 I had listened to so much music of the 1920s and 1930s that I could identify almost any singer of the period after three or four notes. The more I listened, the more puzzled I was. In her voice I heard the sexual swagger of Mae West, the presence and directness of Sophie Tucker, the subtle humor and immaculate diction of Mildred Bailey, the spontaneity, poignancy, and rapport with musicians of Billie Holiday, the vibrancy of Ella Fitzgerald, the jazz feeling, swing, and timing of the Boswell Sisters, the throwaway humor of Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt, the intelligence and storytelling ability of a gifted monologist, and the use of the voice so flexible and imaginative and joyous I couldn’t compare it to anyone else I’d ever heard. “It’s Ethel Waters,” Ellis told me.
“Wasn’t she an actress who played old ladies?” I asked.
“Only much later on. Long before that, she was the first modern pop singer. Everyone you mentioned learned from her.”
I immersed myself in her records. Her 1925 versions of “Dinah” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” must have seemed revolutionary at the time, with her total departure from written melody and conventional phrasing on the second choruses and her moaning horn sounds. “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” from the same year, displayed the pride, sarcasm, and strength of character of Bessie Smith, though Waters’s voice was much smaller, sweeter, and more agile. “West End Blues” sent me flying to the Louis Armstrong version. I was sure that she had listened closely to Louis, borrowed his inventions of scat singing, kamikaze timing and phrasing, and alternating vocal instrumental (“swap”) choruses, then stamped them with her own distinctive personality. Louis sings no words, just a bluesy scat chorus. Waters sings the entire lyric, the confession of a woman who has murdered her cheating lover, then moves so fluidly into a somber scat chorus that she never breaks the mood. I checked the release dates. Sure enough, her record followed his by only two months.
I imagined her as a young singer back then, absorbing everyone and everything around her and instinctively knowing what to use and what to discard as she forged her own distinctive and totally new style. As well as she performed them, I soon tired of the sexual humor of her earlier songs, timeless ditties with titles like “Organ Grinder Blues,” “My Handy Man,” and “Do What You Did Last Night.” These, I knew, were required repertoire for black singers on 1920s “race” record labels. I found that, as the English musicologist Basil Blackwell wrote, “the years of her consummate artistry coincide with her discovery of the master composers of Tin Pan Alley”: Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, and those other songwriters now universally acknowledged as the finest of our centurv.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
It was a propitious time for him to discover her. After witnessing with some jealousy the Gershwins’ huge critical and financial success with their Pulitzer Prize-winning political satire Of Thee I Sing , Berlin, always a shrewd businessman, decided that simple song-dance-chorus-girl shows were going out of style, to be replaced by topical shows with more bite to them. With the playwright Moss Hart he conceived As Thousands Cheer , a revue based on newspaper headlines. To put himself in the vanguard, he would include not only satirical numbers on events and personages of the day but also a somber song staged in front of a blowup of the headline UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB. “Supper Time” was the quiet lament of the wife of the victim as she ponders how to break the news to her children. Waters was the ideal, in fact the only possible, singer for such a song, for only she possessed the combination of artistry and intellect needed to give a powerful yet understated interpretation of a number that was sure to provoke controversy.
The black filmmaker Gene Davis points out that Waters “was the first black singer Jewish songwriters of the day were confident of in terms of sophisticated material.” Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb, the stars of As Thousands Cheer , wanted “Supper Time” dropped, since they had to follow it with the kind of lightweight number audiences expected of them. The producer, Sam Harris, insisted that it stay in. As Waters performed the song, she drew for inspiration on her memory of an incident during a vaudeville tour in Macon, Georgia, when she had met the family of a black teen-ager who had been hanged for talking back to a white man.
With the song “Supper Time” and the three others Berlin gave her—“Harlem on My Mind,” “Heat Wave,” and “To Be or Not to Be”—Waters stole the show, which was a smash hit. A few months later she became the highestpaid female performer on the Great White Way. When the show went on the road, she became the first black to be given equal billing with white stars south of the MasonDixon line.
During the run of the show Waters, who had contributed to various Catholic charities ever since she’d had money to spare, responded to an appeal from St. Theresa’s Monastery in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The mother superior wrote to thank her, and they began a correspondence. Waters visited the Carmelite retreat for spiritual counseling and found great comfort there. Separated from her second husband, she was turning increasingly to religion. An interview conducted by Earl Wilson for The New York Times describes her ten-room penthouse suite in one of the 115th Street apartment buildings she then owned. One of the rooms was a religious shrine, its walls covered with religious images and other objects. She told Wilson she preferred to worship in private rather than attend church. She had long kept a crucifix in every backstage dressing room. Theater was her other passion, and she went as often as possible, always purchasing a single seat in the last row of the orchestra to avoid unpleasant stares from racist patrons. In 1935 she starred in another hit revue, but she found herself yearning for a role that would enable her to establish herself as a serious actress.
She met Dorothy Heyward at a party and urged her to work with her husband, DuBose, on a dramatization of a novel of his she’d loved, Mamba’s Daughters . (The Heywards were then enjoying the success of Porgy , their dramatization of another of DuBose’s novels). Waters felt Mamba’s Daughters was a much more accurate depiction of black life than Porgy was, and she was fascinated by the fictional family’s close resemblance to her own. Some time later a script arrived in the mail, and Waters became determined to play the role of Hagar, a hardworking, stoic grandmother much like hers. The Hey wards struggled to find backing for a Broadway production, and Waters agreed not to take on any long-term commitments so that she could start rehearsals at a moment’s notice. She turned down a highly paid moviehouse-tour contract and made what seemed like a suicidal career move, booking herself onto the black vaudeville circuit she had graduated from years earlier. A year and a half later the Heywards still lacked backing (partly because no one wanted to take a chance on a singer in the pivotal role), and her career looked washed up. Then the famed director Guthrie McClintic agreed to take on the project, and the show was on.
Waters, the first black actress to star on Broadway in a dramatic play, took seventeen curtain calls on opening night in January 1939. Reviews of the play were mixed, but her performance was a triumph. A Time critic wrote, “In her first dramatic role the famed singer of blues and hotcha shames the play’s bogus tear-jerking with her own deep and honest intensity.” She had realized her greatest dream, but the difficulty of playing such a physically and emotionally demanding role immediately began to take its toll on her. Untrained as an actress, she simply “lived” her part over and over, giving everything she had every night. A telling dressing-room interview with Elliott Arnold just weeks after the play opened describes her as shivering with fatigue after the final curtain. “It’s made me feel cold and numb, and I don’t feel anything any more.…We really fight onstage. I don’t know how to play-fight. We get hurt.…When I kill that man I kill him every night. And when my daughter has been hurt, it is a real Hagar and a real daughter. I don’t know what I’m doing.” After such an exhausting performance, she complained, “There’s nothing I can take for a bracer. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’m just here. I’ll go home. Tomorrow it will still be inside.”
In fact, Waters, who had vowed since childhood not to become addicted to the drugs and alcohol she had seen destroy so many lives, had found a bracer: food. As a glamorous singing star she had gone dancing in Harlem to unwind after her nightly performances and had had a strong incentive to keep up her appearance. Now, playing a woman much older than herself, she had none. Her mental and physical health began to decline steadily as she ate her way to double her normal weight after playing Hagar every night.
Still, she told an interviewer afterward, she “would be willing never to do another role, and to spend the rest of her life thanking God for giving her those fourteen months of glory.” She said: “When it was over, I just wanted to put myself away and retire. I didn’t want nothing to spoil it.” She spoke openly about her lack of desire to return to musicals. “Somehow it seems as though if I were to go back singing as I used to in musicals, I would be destroying everything I’d built up in Mamba’s Daughters,” she told The New York Times . She announced that she now hated to sing.
With no new dramatic roles on the horizon, she was lured back to the musical stage for Cabin in the Sky (1940), but only after the producers agreed to make Petunia, her role, a strong woman instead of a punching bag for her unfaithful husband, Joe. She also had made Petunia more religious and insisted that Joe have at least a few redeeming qualities to be worthy of a pious woman’s love. She loved the superb score, and her singing, though markedly less spontaneous and more actressy, still stopped the show. Because of her conspicuous weight gain, she was now unmistakably a matron rather than a romantic lead, and when the hit musical was filmed in Hollywood in 1942 and 1943, the luminously beautiful young Lena Home was brought in to add sex appeal.
Waters is still the best thing in the film when, even fat and dowdy, she takes fire during her big number, “Taking a Chance on Love,” transforming herself from the drab, long-suffering wife she played into the red-hot singer and dancer she once had been. But her Hollywood experience was a miserable one. She was angry with the way the studio treated her, and she wanted more religion in the screenplay. Feeling Lena Home was getting too much attention, she exploded with such rage on the set orte day that the two women never spoke again.
Offered a good part in a Theatre Guild production of the new play The Member of the Wedding (Carson McCullers’s adaptation of her own novel), she again stipulated that her character be re-written to be more religious. The Guild refused. To keep working, she gave a few concerts, but even critics who had always loved her work openly expressed their disappointment. “She contributed less song and more mannerism,” one wrote. Another, apparently trying to be kind, said, “Something was wrong there, last evening at least.” Most made it clear that she had embarrassed herself and them as. olumo and gray-haired, she attempted to revive the novelty songs she had performed as an ingenue.
In this troubled period she was rescued by a meaty role in Pinky , a 1949 movie starring Jeanne Grain as a young black nurse who passes for white. Waters played Grain’s wise and loving grandmother and received an Academy Award nomination for her performance. After this success the producers of The Member-of the Wedding agreed to rewrite the part of Berenice Sadie Brown to Waters’s stringent religious specifications, and the play opened on Broadway in January 1950. It was a success, and Waters and her costar, Julie Harris, received rave reviews. Glad to be a working actress again, Waters headed the road company tour of the play. It was then filmed, with Fred Zinnemann as director. Zinnemann, who thought the film one of his best, found Waters (who received a second Academy Award nomination for her work in it) “a wonderful, sad woman” but also “a very headstrong lady. If she took three steps to the right and I’d ask her to move to the left instead, she’d stand perfectly still, point at me, and say, ‘God is my director!’” A later television version of the play brought Emmy nominations to both Waters and Harris.
Her autobiography came out, bringing her acclaim in a third artistic field and what could have been enough money to assure a comfortable retirement. There was interest in turning the book into a show, but when she, at fiftyfour, insisted on playing herself even as a very young woman, the project collapsed. In 1950 she was offered the title role in the television sitcom “Beulah” and became the first black actor to star in her own series. The TV show should have been a major breakthrough and another source of the financial security she had never attained. Instead it brought trouble: Black and liberal political organizations denounced her for perpetuating black stereotypes by playing a servant. She was furious. Her own much-loved grandmother had been a servant all her life, she herself had once worked happily as a maid, and she saw absolutely no shame in playing one. She also despised television as a medium. "[It’s] a pocket edition of moving pictures.…There are so many greenhorns in TV…so many dictators who don’t know their business.” She left the show after a year.
The 1950s were the worst time in her life. She was lonely, tired, out of work, in debt, and more than two hundred pounds overweight. By her own account, only religion made her life worth living. In 1957 she met Billy Graham and joined his Crusade, assuring the press she was happy just to be singing in his chorus. In her life she had made and spent huge sums of money on clothes, cars, two apartment buildings, a nightclub, stranded fellow vaudevillians, the illegitimate female children she occasionally took in, and a series of unreliable men. Flat broke and plagued by 1RS debts she had been trying to pay off since 1942, she was socked again for back taxes, and she showed that she had lost her money but not her wit when she told the press, “Where I come from, people don’t get close enough to money to keep a working acquaintance with it. So I don’t know how to keep it.”
The era of integration dawned, but she didn’t dawn with it. Lena Home donned a dashiki and sang “Freedom Now"; Waters incurred the wrath of civil rights organizations by stating, “I’m not concerned with civil rights. I’m only concerned with God-given rights, and they are available to everyone!” She withdrew from public life and devoted herself exclusively to the Billy Graham Crusade. Through Graham she became friendly with the Nixons, insisting that they were still her “babies” even after Nixon left the White House in disgrace. She worked infrequently, appearing in small roles on several television shows.
Since she had become a born-again Christian, she had reduced her weight from 380 to 160 pounds, but her debilitated body continued its decline. In the last years of her life she lived an isolated existence in a small Pasa dena apartment. Finally, too ill to care for herself, she was taken in by a couple she had just met. Suffering from cataracts, a heart condition, diabetes, kidney failure, and uterine cancer, she died in September 1977, twenty years after she had told the Los Angeles Mirror , “I’m not afraid to die, honey. In fact, I’m kinda looking forward to it. I know that the Lord has his arms wrapped around this big fat sparrow.”
The more I have learned about Ethel Waters, the more astounded I am that she is not celebrated both as the great and innovative singer she was and as the very first black artist who broke through racial barriers in music, theater, nightclubs, radio, film, and television, opening doors for everyone who came after her. Donald Bogle, author of Brown Sugar and Blacks in American Film and Television , posits in his introduction to the paperback of her autobiography that she may simply not have been the kind of black who would be celebrated by other blacks. He points out that for all her accomplishments, history itself seemed to turn on her in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement evolved into the black-power movement. By then her “mammy” roles were all she was remembered for, and when she turned up grinning ear to ear in pictures of Tricia Nixon’s wedding, she seemed “a misunderstood cultural relic.” He points out that she actually “crosses swords with and punctures holes in old-style mammy characterizations,” bringing warmth, strength, humanity, and anger “to flip her roles inside out and come up with complex African-American women.” (She also never recorded a single song in which a woman was a victim.)
The jazz writer Stanley Crouch acknowledges that she should have a place in the jazz pantheon; he believes she lost out when “she allowed herself to become matronly in an era when singers had to be glamorous. Only Ella survived that, and she had a major [record] label behind her.” The documentarist Gene Davis thinks that when Waters diversified, establishing herself as a serious actress, her contributions as a singer were automatically diminished. Bobby Short finds her to be simply another show-business casualty. “It’s all so fly-by-night in pop,” he says with a sigh.
Naturally I have a few theories of my own. Because of her trailblazing style, Waters deserves to be as widely listened to and loved as the jazz icons Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Stylistically and chronologically she is the only singer who links them. But she didn’t die young and tragically, as they did. (You don’t become a jazz legend by growing old, playing grandmothers, and palling around with Billy Graham and Richard Nixon.) She made records that never fail to surprise and delight, but though she is unstinting in giving her talent, she rarely bares her soul the way Bessie and Billie unfailingly do. Davis agrees: “She was a great observationist as a singer, a mirror of a broader life.” It was her gift to inform, to create memorable characters, to entertain us on the highest possible level, but not to move us deeply.
And then there was the matter of her temper. “I’m the kind of woman, if I was mad at you I’d just as leave kill you as look at you,” she told Earl Wilson in 1940. To Helen Ormsbee of the New York Herald Tribune she said: “I came up hard and willful. I was a dead-end kid, playing in the gutter. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—that was what I lived by for years, and if anybody did me wrong I was a powerful adversary!” She must have made many enemies, and in her entire book she doesn’t mention a single enduring friendship. Her assessments of other stars were harsh: She said Billie Holiday sang “as if her shoes were too tight,” and she described Al Jolson’s delivery as “all uppercuts.” Of Josephine Baker, she said: “She was just an end girl who could mug. But she went great, with my stuff.” When Waters stayed in London and people asked if she knew Baker, she retorted: “Know her? She was me!” The blues singer Alberta Hunter remembered getting on her wrong side too: “I guess I outsang her, because she put everything but the kitchen sink on me.” She is said to have had Billie Holiday, then a struggling newcomer, removed from a bill she was on, and people on the Cabin in the Sky set claimed that Lena Home’s sudden and debilitating ankle injury was the result of a hex the jealous Waters put on her. Could it be that members of the New York music world were only too glad to turn their backs on her when she lost interest in singing, publicly devalued it as an art form, and left their ranks to pursue an acting career?
I was unable to find her very first records in the private collections of friends and had given up hope of hearing them when someone suggested I try the Rutgers University In- stitute of Jazz Studies. I was doubtful, since the jazz world seemed oblivious of Waters. But the director of the institute, the veteran international jazz authority Dan Morgenstern, turned out to be a closet Waters fan, and he had rare records spanning her entire career. I made the trip to Newark.
“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.