Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was an American blues, jazz and gospel vocalist and actress. She frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, although she began her career in the 1920s singing blues.Her best-known recordings includes, “Dinah”, “Birmingham Bertha”, “Stormy Weather” “Hottentot Potentate”, 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 to be nominated for an Academy Award.
She was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1896, as a result of her mother’s rape at age 13.
Waters married at the age of 13, but soon left her abusive husband and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel working for US $4.75 per week. On Halloween night in 1913, 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, Maryland. 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.
She recorded with Black Swan from 1921 through 1923. In early 1924, Paramount bought the Black Swan label, and she stayed with Paramount through 1924. Waters then first recorded for Columbia Records in 1925, achieving a hit with her voicing of “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 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, Harry Akst helped Wright and Waters compose a version of “Am I Blue?,” her signature tune.
Although she was considered a blues singer during the pre-1925 period, Waters belonged to the Vaudeville-style style similar to 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”. 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.
Here is a clip of her singing live in 1965:
Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically in following years. In 1950-51 she wrote the autobiography His Eye is on the Sparrow, with Charles Samuels. (It later was adapted for a stage production in which she was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson.) In it, she talks candidly about her life. Waters is the great-aunt of Dance music singer and songwriter Crystal Waters. In the period before her death in Los Angeles, California, she toured with The Reverend Billy Graham, despite the fact that she had once been a Catholic and he was a Protestant. She died in 1977 at the age of 80 from heart disease, at the Chatsworth, California, home of a young couple who cared for her.
Waters is the great-aunt of Dance music singer and songwriter Crystal Waters. In the period before her death in Los Angeles, California, she toured with The Reverend Billy Graham, despite the fact that she had once been a Catholic and he was a Protestant. She died in 1977 at the age of 80 from heart disease, at the Chatsworth, California, home of a young couple who cared for her.