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Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters

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Also Known As: Died: September 1, 1977
Born: October 31, 1896 Cause of Death: cancer
Birth Place: Chester, Pennsylvania, USA Profession: singer, actor, author, chambermaid, laundress

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

A spellbinding singer of songs, an actress of magnanimous power, Waters was a force of nature who enthralled audiences and even the stoniest of critics in nightclubs, vaudeville, recordings, Broadway, radio, movies and television. One of the finest black female entertainers of her century, she is the premiere trailblazer of the sisterhood: the first woman to gain W.C. Handy's permission to perform "St. Louis Blues", the performer who brought the blues and the shimmy down from Harlem onto the legitimate stage, the first recording star to have a hit record as the result of a nightclub song ("Dinah", in 1925), the first black woman to star in a dramatic play ("Mamba's Daughters" in 1939), the Broadway star cheered by audiences (she took seventeen curtain calls for the aforementioned show on opening night).Her childhood surpassed Billie Holliday's in tragic, terrifying grit. Born out of wedlock, she grew up running errands for whores, being lookout for pimps and opium den operators and acquiring a tough facade that hid the wounded woman underneath. Billed as "Sweet Mama Stringbean", she survived backbreaking, nightmarish road tours in Jim Crow country, her experiences creating a dual nature of smooth...

A spellbinding singer of songs, an actress of magnanimous power, Waters was a force of nature who enthralled audiences and even the stoniest of critics in nightclubs, vaudeville, recordings, Broadway, radio, movies and television. One of the finest black female entertainers of her century, she is the premiere trailblazer of the sisterhood: the first woman to gain W.C. Handy's permission to perform "St. Louis Blues", the performer who brought the blues and the shimmy down from Harlem onto the legitimate stage, the first recording star to have a hit record as the result of a nightclub song ("Dinah", in 1925), the first black woman to star in a dramatic play ("Mamba's Daughters" in 1939), the Broadway star cheered by audiences (she took seventeen curtain calls for the aforementioned show on opening night).

Her childhood surpassed Billie Holliday's in tragic, terrifying grit. Born out of wedlock, she grew up running errands for whores, being lookout for pimps and opium den operators and acquiring a tough facade that hid the wounded woman underneath. Billed as "Sweet Mama Stringbean", she survived backbreaking, nightmarish road tours in Jim Crow country, her experiences creating a dual nature of smooth exotique who sang refined songs and offstage holy terror whenever someone crossed her. The duality became distilled in vaudeville where Water's image was the tough, city flapper: a sexy tease who could be provocative but put men in their place at the same time. Waters' first forays into stage work were not in successful shows but Harold Arlen gave her the song "Stormy Weather". When Irving Berlin heard Waters' moving rendition he decided to offer her a role in "As Thousands Cheer" (1933). Although it was not a star part, Waters took the dare and braved opening night in an open parody of rival Josephine Baker, disarming the audience with her impish glee and gap-toothed smile as she raced through "Heat Wave". Later she delivered the mournful lament "Supper Time" as a Southern black woman whose husband has been lynched: this was the first time a comfortable white audience had ever been theatrically stunned by a song of racial pain.

It is almost impossible to measure the impact Waters had in theatrical history when she played the tragic matriarch in "Mamba's Daughters". Her film roles came to be variations on this theme, figures of mythic compassion who could fight if they were wronged. Success had made her a matronly figure, and now into her forties, she could exploit her dark side in scenes of vengeance against the unrighteous. Previously, she had been spliced into "On With the Show" (1929) and played the mother of Sammy Davis, Jr., in the Vitaphone short "Rufus Jones for President" (1933, in which Davis dreams he becomes President). Now a character actress to be reckoned with, Waters appeared opposite the great Paul Robeson in the episodic "Tales of Manhattan" (1942) and recreated her cheerful Broadway triumph for MGM and Vincente Minnelli in the Harold Arlen-Vernon Duke musical "Cabin in the Sky" (1943). Her performance was a revelation, but Waters made filming difficult, even opposing the brass at MGM. It would be six years before she returned to the screen, but she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the passed-for-white social drama "Pinky" (1949, holding her own against Ethel Barrymore). She reached still greater heights on Broadway and in the film version of Carson McCullers' novella "The Member of the Wedding" (1952). Incredibly, between the stage version and the film version she played the amiable domestic, "Beulah" on TV for two seasons (1950-52).

These successes spelled the end of Waters' star years but in 1957 she accepted an invitation to sing at a Billy Graham crusade at Madison Square Garden. The event changed her life and she seemed to at last find inner peace and happiness, remaining associated with the evangelist the rest of her days. Always a soft touch with money, Waters died broke in 1976.

The catalog of songs she introduced reads like a "Who's-Who" of great selections from the golden years of show business: "Am I Blue?", "Sweet Georgia Brown", "Till the Real Thing Comes Along", "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe", "Taking a Chance on Love", "Memories of You", "You Can't Stop Me from Loving You", and many others. Her autobiography was named after her favorite song, the spiritual "His Eye is on the Sparrow".

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 The Sound and the Fury (1959) Dilsey
2.
 The Heart Is a Rebel (1958) Gladys
3.
 Carib Gold (1956) Mom
4.
 The Member of the Wedding (1953) Berenice Sadie Brown
5.
 Pinky (1949) Dicey Johnson
6.
7.
 Cabin in the Sky (1943) Petunia Jackson
8.
 Tales of Manhattan (1942) Esther
9.
 Cairo (1942) Cleona Jones
10.
 Gift of Gab (1934) Herself
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Worked as a chambermaid in a small Philadelphia hotel earning $4.75 a week
1911:
Given first chance to sing on an amateur night at a Philadelphia club on her 15th birthday; was hired on the spot and billed as "Sweet Mama Stringbean
1917:
Made vaudeville debut at the Lincoln Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with the Hill Sisters
1921:
Began recording for the Black Swan record label
1925:
Replaced Florence Mills as the stellar attraction at Sam Salvin's Plantation Club in Harlem, where she introduced "Dinah", which she recorded for Columbia Records
1927:
Made Broadway debut in Donald Heywood's all-black musical revue, "Africana" and legitimate vaudeville debut at the Palace Theater
1929:
Screen debut in Warner Brothers technicolor feature "On With the Show"
1930:
Appeared in Lew Leslie production of "Blackbirds of 1930" on Broadway, singing songs of Eubie Blake
1931:
Starred in "Rhapsody in Black" on Broadway
1933:
Introduced "Stormy Weather" at the Cotton Club
1933:
Appeared in "As Thousands Cheer"--the first time a black performer had appeared in a white cast
1933:
Filmed Vitaphone short, "Rufus Jones for President" in Brooklyn
1935:
Appeared in all-star cast of "At Home Abroad", with Beatrice Lillie, Eleanor Powell and Eddie Foy, Jr.
1938:
Gave concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Roxy and the Palace
1939:
Won great acclaim on Broadway in her first dramatic role in "Mamba's Daughters"
1940:
Starred in musical fantasy "Cabin in the Sky" on Broadway
1942:
Returned to Hollywood and appeared in Fox's "Tales of Manhattan"
1943:
Recreated her "Cabin in the Sky" triumph in Vincente Minnelli's directorial debut
1943:
Guest-starred in film, "Stage Door Canteen"
1949:
Did memorable supporting work in "Pinky", for which she was nominated for an Oscar
1950:
Returned to Broadway for "The Member of the Wedding"
1950:
Starred as the title character in the TV comedy, "Beluah"
1951:
Published best-selling autobiography
1952:
Repeated her role in film version of "The Member of the Wedding"
1953:
Did one-woman Broadway show, "At Home with Ethel Waters"
1956:
Appeared on "Break the $250,000 Bank" television quiz show, seeking money to pay her back taxes
1957:
Accepted invitation to sing at Billy Graham crusade at Madison Square Garden; began regular participation in Graham's "crusades"
1957:
Revived "The Member of the Wedding" in Berlin, under the auspices of the United States State Department
1959:
Revived one-woman Broadway show as "An Evening With Ethel Waters"
1959:
Made final theatrical film, "The Sound and the Fury"
1971:
Honored at testimonial dinner in Los Angeles
1972:
Wrote second autobiography, "To Me, It's Wonderful"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

"...a few words in praise of Ethel Waters, the gleaming tower of dusky regality, who knows how to make a song stand on tip-toe. Miss Waters can sing...with enormous lurking vitality; but she can also wear costumes...is decorative as well as magnetic." --from a NEW YORK TIMES review by Brooks Atkinson.

"Where I come from, people don't get close enough to money to keep a working acquaintance with it." --Ethel Waters, quoted in her TIME magazine epitaph.

"I sang them [the blues] out of the depths of the private fire in which I was brought up. Only those who are being burned know what fire is like." --Ethel Waters (quoted in the NEW YORK TIMES obituary, September 2, 1977)

She served during WWII with the Seventh Women's Ambulance Corps.

Waters Was honorary captain of the California State Militia during WWII.

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Buddy Purnsley. Married in 1914; divorced; abusive husband ten years Waters's senior whom she married at age 13.
husband:
Clyde Edward Matthews. Second husband; married in 1929; divorced in 1934.
husband:
Edward Mallory. Third husband; survived her.

Family close complete family listing

grandmother:
Sally Anderson. Maid. Raised Waters; the mature Waters used her as inspiration for matriarchal roles.
father:
John Waters. Raped Ethel Waters's mother at knifepoint.
mother:
Louise Anderson. Unwed thirteen-year-old when daughter was born.

Bibliography close complete biography

"His Eye is on the Sparrow"
"To Me It's Wonderful"
"Hollywood Songsters" Garland Publishing
"Brown Sugar" Da Capo Press
"The Great Stage Stars" Facts on file Publications
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

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