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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: Cast ... singer actor author chambermaid laundress
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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 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."

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