Ethel Waters


Singer
Ethel Waters

About

Birth Place
Chester, Pennsylvania, USA
Born
October 31, 1896
Died
September 01, 1977
Cause of Death
Cancer

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 ...

Family & Companions

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

Bibliography

"Hollywood Songsters"
James Robert Parish and Michael R Pitts, Garland Publishing (1991)
"The Great Stage Stars"
Sheridan Morley, Facts on file Publications (1986)
"Brown Sugar"
Donald Bogle, Da Capo Press (1980)
"To Me It's Wonderful"
Ethel Waters (1972)

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.

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."

Life Events

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"

Photo Collections

Cabin in the Sky - Movie Posters
Here are a variety of original release movie posters for Cabin in the Sky (1943), directed by Vincente Minnelli.
Pinky - Movie Poster
Here is the American one-sheet movie poster for Pinky (1949), starring Jeanne Craine and Ethel Waters. One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.

Videos

Movie Clip

Member Of The Wedding, The (1952) - That Green And Crazy Summer Julie Harris (as "Frankie") with Ethel Waters (as "Berenice") and the rest of the cast, introduced in the opening scene of Fred Zinnemann's The Member of the Wedding, 1952, from Carson McCullers' novel and play.
Member Of The Wedding, The (1952) - It Don't Do! Frankie (Julie Harris) and Berenice (Ethel Waters) disagree about her new dress, John Henry (Brandon de Wilde) observing, in The Member of the Wedding, 1952, from Carson McCullers' novel and play.
Member Of The Wedding, The (1952) - His Eye Is On The Sparrow The evening before the wedding, Frankie (Julie Harris) having a crisis, the three central characters (Ethel Waters as Berenice, Brandon De Wilde as John Henry) and the gospel standard credited to Charles H. Gabriel and Civilla D. Martin, in Daniel Mann’s movie from the Carson McCullers novel, The Member Of The Wedding, 1952.
Cabin In The Sky (1943) - Double Or Nothing Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) hides in the bushes while Petunia (Ethel Waters) settles some of his gambling debts (with Ernest Whitman as "Jim Henry") in MGM's Cabin In The Sky, 1943.
Cabin In The Sky (1943) - Open, Free Will Credits and first scene from MGM's production of the Broadway musical Cabin In The Sky, 1943, starring Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne, directed by Vincente Minnelli.
Cabin In The Sky (1943) - A Thing Called Joe Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) comes back to life, prompting Petunia (Ethel Waters) into her sparkling performance of "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe" by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, in MGM's Cabin In The Sky, 1943.
Cabin In The Sky (1943) - One Of Your Favorite Daughters The "Idea Men" at the "Hotel Hades" include Louis Armstrong, Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, led by "Lucifer Jr." (Rex Ingram), speaking to his father, then visiting the temptress Georgia (Lena Horne) in Cabin In The Sky, 1943.
Pinky (1949) - Ask His Forgiveness! After years away at nursing school up north, Jeanne Crain (title character), just returned to the down-south home of her poor black grandmother Dicey (Ethel Waters), confesses that she's been passing for white, in Elia Kazan's Pinky, 1949.
Sound And The Fury, The (1959) - End Of The Line Martin Ritt directs from Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.’s script, aiming to straighten William Faulkner’s novel’s narrative, we meet Joanne Woodward as Quentin, Ethel Waters as Dilsey, whom she’s caused to panic, and John Beal as Howard, in producer Jerry Wald’s The Sound And The Fury, 1959.
Sound And The Fury, The (1959) - Do You Hide Out In The Woods? Louisiana teen Quentin (Joanne Woodward) has been out all night, skipping school and angering her guardian uncle-in-law Jason (Yul Brynner in a wig!), maid Dilsey (Ethel Waters) keeping peace, his mom (Francoise Rosay) griping, early in The Sound And The Fury, 1959, sort-of from William Faulkner’s novel.
Member of the Wedding, The - Opening Credits Opening credit sequence from Fred Zinneman's The Member of the Wedding, 1952, starring Julie Christie in her Academy Award-nominated debut, with Ethel Waters, from Carson McCullers' novel and play.

Trailer

Family

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

Companions

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

Bibliography

"Hollywood Songsters"
James Robert Parish and Michael R Pitts, Garland Publishing (1991)
"The Great Stage Stars"
Sheridan Morley, Facts on file Publications (1986)
"Brown Sugar"
Donald Bogle, Da Capo Press (1980)
"To Me It's Wonderful"
Ethel Waters (1972)
"His Eye is on the Sparrow"
Ethel Waters (1951)

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.