Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters

Waters in 1943
Background information
Also known as Ethel Howard
Born (1896-10-31)October 31, 1896
Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died September 1, 1977(1977-09-01) (aged 80)
Chatsworth, California, U.S.
Genres Jazz, gospel, blues
Occupation(s) Actress, singer
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1918–1977
Associated acts Josephine Baker, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, Lena Horne, Ma Rainey

Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was an American blues, jazz and gospel singer and actress.

She frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, but she began her career in the 1920s singing blues.

Her best-known recordings include "Dinah," "Stormy Weather," "Taking a Chance on Love," "Heat Wave," "Supper Time," "Am I Blue?" and "Cabin in the Sky," as well as her version of the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." Waters was the second African American, after Hattie McDaniel, to be nominated for an Academy Award. She was also the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award, in 1962.

Early life

Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 1896, as a result of the rape of her teenaged mother, Louise Anderson (believed to have been 13 years old at the time, although some sources indicate she may have been slightly older), by John Waters, a pianist and family acquaintance from a mixed-race middle-class background. He played no role in raising Ethel.[1] Soon after she was born, her mother married railroad worker Norman Howard. Ethel used the surname Howard as a child, before reverting to her father's name of Waters.[2] She was raised in poverty and never lived in the same place for more than 15 months. She said of her difficult childhood, "I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family."[3]

Waters grew tall, standing 5' 9½" in her teens. According to women-in-jazz historian and archivist Rosetta Reitz, Waters's birth in the North and her peripatetic life exposed her to many cultures.

Waters married at the age of 13, but her husband was abusive, and she soon left the marriage and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel, working for $4.75 per week. On her 17th birthday, she attended a costume party at a nightclub on Juniper Street. She was persuaded to sing two songs and impressed the audience so much that she was offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore.[4] She later recalled that she earned the rich sum of ten dollars a week, but her managers cheated her out of the tips her admirers threw on the stage.


Waters inducted into Zeta Phi Eta at the University of Michigan

After her start in Baltimore, Waters toured on the black vaudeville circuit. As she described it later, "I used to work from nine until unconscious."[5] Despite her early success, she fell on hard times and joined a carnival, traveling in freight cars along the carnival circuit and eventually reaching Chicago. Waters enjoyed her time with the carnival and recalled, "the roustabouts and the concessionaires were the kind of people I'd grown up with, rough, tough, full of larceny towards strangers, but sentimental and loyal to their friends and co-workers." She did not last long with them, though, and soon headed south to Atlanta, where she worked in the same club with Bessie Smith. Smith demanded that Waters not compete in singing blues opposite her. Waters conceded and sang ballads and popular songs. Around 1919, Waters moved to Harlem and there became a celebrity performer in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Waters obtained her first Harlem job at Edmond's Cellar, a club with a black patronage. She specialized in popular ballads and became an actress in a blackface comedy, Hello 1919. The jazz historian Rosetta Reitz pointed out that by the time Waters returned to Harlem in 1921, women blues singers were among the most powerful entertainers in the country. In 1921, Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record, on the tiny Cardinal Records label. She later joined Black Swan Records, where Fletcher Henderson was her accompanist. Waters later commented that Henderson tended to perform in a more classical style than she preferred, often lacking "the damn-it-to-hell bass."[6]


She recorded with Black Swan from 1921 through 1923.[7] In early 1924, Paramount bought the Black Swan label, and she stayed with Paramount through that year. She first recorded for Columbia Records in 1925, achieving a hit with "Dinah," which was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. Soon after, she started working with Pearl Wright, and together they toured in the South. In 1924, Waters played at the Plantation Club on Broadway. She also toured with the Black Swan Dance Masters. With Earl Dancer, she joined what was called the "white time" Keith Vaudeville Circuit, a traditional white-audience based vaudeville circuit performing for white audiences and combined with screenings of silent movies. They received rave reviews in Chicago and earned the unheard of salary of US$1,250 in 1928. In 1929, Waters and Pearl Wright arranged the unreleased Harry Akst song "Am I Blue?," which then appeared in the movie On with the Show and became a hit and her signature song.[8]

Although she was considered a blues singer during the pre-1925 period, Waters belonged to the vaudeville style of Mamie Smith, Viola McCoy, and Lucille Hegamin. While with Columbia, she introduced many popular standards, including "Dinah," "Heebie Jeebies," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Someday, Sweetheart," "Am I Blue?" and "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" on the popular series, while she continued to sing blues ("West End Blues," "Organ Grinder Blues," etc.) on Columbia's 14000 race series. During the 1920s, Waters performed and was recorded with the ensembles of Will Marion Cook and Lovie Austin. As her career continued, she evolved toward being a blues and Broadway singer, performing with artists such as Duke Ellington. She remained with Columbia through 1931. She signed with Brunswick Records in 1932 and remained until 1933, when she went back to Columbia. She signed with Decca Records in late 1934 for only two sessions, as well as a single session in early 1938. She recorded for the specialty label Liberty Music Shop Records in 1935 and again in 1940. In 1938 and 1939, she recorded for Bluebird.

In 1933, Waters appeared a satirical all-black film, Rufus Jones for President, which featured the child performer Sammy Davis Jr. as Rufus Jones. She went on to star at the Cotton Club, where, according to her autobiography, she "sang 'Stormy Weather' from the depths of the private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated." She had a featured role in the wildly successful Irving Berlin Broadway musical revue As Thousands Cheer in 1933, in which she was the first black woman in an otherwise white show. She had three gigs at this point; in addition to the show, she starred in a national radio program and continued to work in nightclubs. She was the highest-paid performer on Broadway at that time. MGM hired Lena Horne as the ingenue in the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, and Waters starred as Petunia in 1942, reprising her stage role of 1940. The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, was a success.

Waters with Count Basie in Stage Door Canteen (1943)

She began to work with Fletcher Henderson again in the late 1940s. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky (1949), under the direction of Elia Kazan, after the original director, John Ford, quit over disagreements with Waters. According to producer Darryl F. Zanuck, Ford "hated that old...woman (Waters)." Ford, Kazan stated, "didn't know how to reach Ethel Waters." Kazan later referred to Waters's "truly odd combination of old-time religiosity and free-flowing hatred.".[9] In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance opposite Julie Harris in the play The Member of the Wedding. Waters and Harris reprised their roles in the 1952 film version, Member of the Wedding. In 1950, Waters starred in the television series Beulah, becoming the first African-American actress to have a lead role in a television series. However, she quit after complaining that the portrayal of blacks was "degrading." She later guest-starred in 1957 and 1959 on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. In the 1957 episode, she sang "Cabin in the Sky".[10]

Despite these successes, her brilliant career was fading. She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and she had difficulties with the IRS. Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically in the following years. In 1950–51 she wrote her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow with Charles Samuels, in which she wrote candidly about her life. She explained why her age had often been misstated: her friends had to sign a paper claiming Waters was four years younger than she was to get a group insurance deal; she stated that she was born in 1900. His Eye Is on the Sparrow was adapted for a stage production in which she was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson. In her second autobiography, To Me, It's Wonderful, Waters stated that she was born in 1896.[11] Rosetta Reitz called Waters "a natural ... [Her] songs are enriching, nourishing. You will want to play them over and over again, idling in their warmth and swing. Though many of them are more than 50 years old, the music and the feeling are still there."

Private life

Waters had romantic relationships with women as well as men.[12]

In her later years, she often toured with Billy Graham on his crusades.[13]

Waters died on September 1, 1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer, kidney failure, and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California.[14]

She was the great-aunt of the singer-songwriter Crystal Waters.

Awards and honors

Grammy Hall of Fame

Three recordings by Waters were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old and have "qualitative or historical significance."

Ethel Waters: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards[15]
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1929 "Am I Blue?" Traditional Pop (Single) Columbia 2007
1933 "Stormy Weather"
(Keeps Rainin' All The Time)
Jazz (Single) Brunswick 2003
1925 "Dinah" Traditional Pop (Single) Columbia 1998

National Recording Registry

Waters' recording of "Stormy Weather" (1933) was listed in the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress in 2003.


Year Title Organization Result Notes
2007 Christian Music Hall of Fame[16] Inducted
1994 29-cents commemorative stamp[17] U.S. Postal Service Honoree Photo (Scott #2851)
1983 Gospel Music Hall of Fame Inducted
1962 Outstanding Single Performance
by an Actress in a Series
Emmy Awards Nominee Route 66
"Goodnight Sweet Blues"
1949 Best Supporting Actress[18] Academy Award Nominee Pinky (film)

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Waters was approved for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004. However, as of 2014, the star has not been funded, and public fundraising efforts continue.[19]

Hit records

Year Single US
[20][nb 1]
1921 "Down Home Blues" 5
"There'll Be Some Changes Made" 5
1922 "Spread Yo' Stuff" 7
"Tiger Rag" 14
1923 "Georgia Blues" 10
1925 "Sweet Georgia Brown" 6
1926 "Dinah" 2
"I've Found a New Baby" 11
"Sugar" 9
1927 "I'm Coming, Virginia" 10
1929 "Am I Blue?" 1
"Birmingham Bertha" 20
"True Blue Lou" 15
1931 "Three Little Words" 8
"I Got Rhythm" 17
"You Can't Stop Me from Loving You" 13
"Shine On, Harvest Moon" 9
"River, Stay 'Way from My Door" 18
1933 "Stormy Weather" 1
"Don't Blame Me" 6
"Heat Wave" 7
"A Hundred Years from Today" 7
1934 "Come Up and See Me Sometime" 9
"Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable to Lunch Today)" 19
1938 "You're a Sweetheart" 16


  1. Joel Whitburn's methodology for creating pre-1940s chart positions has been criticised,[21] and those listed here should not be taken as definitive.



Short Subjects:


Stage appearances


  1. Jessica McElrath. "Remembering the Career of Ethel Waters". Retrieved July 23, 2009.
  2. Ethel Waters, Retrieved 25 September 2016
  3. Waters, Ethel; Samuels, Charles T. (1951). His Eye on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday.
  4. "50th Year for Lincoln Theater". Baltimore Afro American. September 12, 1959. Retrieved March 17, 2011.
  5. "Waters, Ethel". Current Biography. The H. W. Wilson Company: 899–900. 1941. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  6. Waters, Ethel; Samuels, Charles T. (1992). His Eye on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 147.
  7. Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  8. Bogle, Donald (2011). Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. HarperCollins. p. 656. ISBN 9780062041722.
  9. Eyman, Scott (1999). Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 361.
  10. Bourne, Stephen (2007). Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-5902-5. Retrieved November 25, 2010.
  11. Waters, Ethel (1972). To Me, It's Wonderful. New York: Harper & Row. OCLC 329566.
  12. Bogle, Donald (2011). Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. HarperCollins. p. 33. ISBN 9780062041722.
  13. White, Alvin E. (November 19, 1977). "Ethel Waters Remembered". The Afro American. Retrieved November 16, 2010.
  14. Bogle, Donald (2011). Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. New York: HarperCollins.
  15. "Grammy Hall of Fame". The Recording Academy. 2007. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  16. "Christian Music Hall of Fame". Christian Music Hall of Fame and Museum. 2008-01-20. Archived from the original on 2008-02-05. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  17. Tucker, Richard (2003-07-03). "Ethel Waters: Commemorative Stamp". Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  18. "Awards Database: Ethel Waters". The Envelope Please. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  19. "Ethel Waters HWOF Star Petition website".
  20. Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories: 1890-1954. Record Research. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  21. "Joel Whitburn Criticism: Chart Fabrication, Misrepresentation of Sources, Cherry Picking". Songbook
  22. Bogle, Donald (2011). Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. HarperCollins. p. 466. ISBN 9780062041722.
  23. Bogle, pp. 476-77
  24. The Hollywood Palace (Episode #6.22, 8 March 1969) at Internet Movie Database

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