A vibrant and versatile performer, Ethel Waters earned fame in Harlem nightclubs, on the Broadway stage, and in Hollywood films. She was so popular with audiences that at the height of her career Waters earned more money than any other woman on Broadway. Her long list of accomplishments includes many “firsts” for African Americans—she was the first African American to perform on the radio, the first to star with an all-white cast in a Broadway show, and the first to perform with white co-stars in the Deep South.
Waters’s childhood in Chester, Pennsylvania, was difficult and often unhappy. Ethel Waters was conceived when her mother, twelve years old at the time, was brutally raped. Waters was sent to live with physically abusive relatives; they were devastatingly poor and she was sometimes forced to steal food rather than go hungry. When Waters was thirteen, her mother arranged her marriage to a much older man. The relationship was abusive and lasted only a year.
After making a living as a domestic worker, Waters began singing in local clubs; she was soon offered a chance to join a stage show in Baltimore, billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean.” Waters quickly distinguished herself from other popular African-American singers of the day, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, by performing the blues in a restrained, controlled manner that was nothing like the open, sweeping vocal style that was then popular.
Like Smith and other African-American performers of the time, Waters encountered the horrific effects of the Jim Crow laws while touring in the South. After a terrible car accident in Alabama, white doctors gave her only minimal treatment. Waters was unable to walk for nearly two months after the accident. In spite of a difficult recovery, she soon began to appear in popular Harlem clubs and to develop a following among their elite clientele. Waters also began to make records around this time; she would record more than two hundred songs during the course of her career.
Waters’s success in clubs led to offers to perform in stage shows. Of her first major show, Africana, one critic wrote, “Miss Waters is a maiden of considerable personality, an all-engulfing smile and complete combination between eye and limb and admirers out front.”1 Accolades abounded for other shows as well: “Miss Ethel Waters [can] do no wrong,” in Rhapsody in Black;2 “The vibrant depth of Ethel Waters’s voice, the perfection of her slow, poised singing, lift her scenes a notch above the comedy”3 in a Berlin and Hart production of As Thousands Cheer.
Carl Van Vechten, who, Waters wrote, “was credited with knowing...more about Harlem than any other white man except the captain of the Harlem police station,”4 met the singer when she was still known as Sweet Mama Stringbean; they liked one another immediately. Waters attended one of Van Vechten’s elaborate parties, but she felt awkward amidst the fancy and expensive food and décor. “I told Carl the caviar looked like buckshot to me,” she wrote, “and didn’t taste much better.”5 Later she turned the tables, cooking a meal for him: “ham and mustard greens, lemon meringue pie and iced tea.”6 The two remained friends throughout their lives.
Waters continued to appear on stage and in films. She was nominated for an Academy Award in 1949 for her role in the film Pinky. In 1950 she starred on Broadway in Member of the Wedding, based on Carson McCuller’s novel; many felt that this was her finest performance. She received a second Academy Award nomination for her role in the 1952 film version of that play. Just a few years later, Waters, who had always been a spiritual woman, began touring with the Billy Graham Crusade. She found evangelical performing rewarding and she sang with Graham’s choir for many years.
Ethel Waters originated a vocal and performance style that would become the standard among jazz singers. Her work heavily influenced those who followed her, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Many of her signature songs— “Stormy Weather,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”—are still popular with jazz fans today.