The child of a teenage rape victim, Ethel Waters grew up in the slums of Philadelphia and neighboring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. “No one raised me, ” she recollected, “I just ran wild.” She excelled not only at looking after herself, but also at singing and dancing; she began performing at church functions, and as a teenager was locally renowned for her “hip shimmy shake”.
In 1917 she made her debut on the black vaudeville circuit; billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” for her tall, lithe build, she broke through with her rendition of “St. Louis Blues”, which Waters performed in a softer and subtler style than her rivals, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Beginning with her appearances in Harlem nightclubs in the late 1920s, then on the lucrative “white time” vaudeville circuit, she became one of America’s most celebrated and highest-paid entertainers.
At the Cotton Club, she introduced “Stormy Weather”, composed for her by Harold Arlen: she wrote of her performance, “I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted”. Impressed by this performance, Irving Berlin wrote “Supper Time”, a song about a lynching, for Waters to perform in a Broadway revue. She later became the first African-American star of a national radio show. In middle age, first on Broadway and then in the movies, she successfully recast herself as a dramatic actress. Devoutly religious but famously difficult to get along with, Waters found few roles worthy of her talents in her later years.
IMDb Mini Biography By: David S. Smith
Ed Mallory (1938 – 1 September 1977) (her death)
Matthews, Clyde Edward (1929 – 1934) (divorced)
Merritt Purnsley (1910 – 1911) (divorced)
Singer Crystal Waters is her great-niece.
Sang with the Billy Graham Crusade in her later years, always to a warm reception, and recorded several albums of sacred music for Word Records. Became a born-again Christian at one of Graham’s crusades in the late 1950s.
Was the second African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award. The first was Hattie McDaniel, who won for her performance in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Married three times; had no children.
Her favorite hymn was “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” She used it for the title of her autobiography.
Ethel was born to a 12-year-old mother, Louise Anderson, who had been raped at knife point by a man named John Waters. Although she was raised by her maternal grandmother, Sally Anderson, she took her father’s surname.
Performed for the first time at the age of five in a children’s church program; given the first chance to sing on an amateur night at a Philadelphia club on her 15th birthday and was hired on the spot and billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean”; and made her vaudeville debut in 1917 at the Lincoln Theater in Baltimore, Maryland.
She recorded her first two songs, “The New York Glide” and “At the New Jump Steady Ball,” in 1921 on the Cardinal Record label. That same year, she was the first artist to record for Black Swan, W.C. Handy’s record label. By the early 1930s, she had introduced fifty song hits.
She got religion in the late 1950s and performed and toured with evangelist Billy Graham until her death in 1977.
Never learned how to read music.
Husband Edward Mallory was an orchestra leader whom Ethel performed with.
Waters was honored on a U.S. Postal Service stamp issued September 1, 1994 as part of the Legends of American Music series. Her stamp was issued at a ceremony at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, along with stamps honoring Nat ‘King’ Cole, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and Ethel Merman. A west coast ceremony was held by the U.S. Postal Service at Compton Community College in Compton, CA the next day. The city of Compton declared September 2, 1994 ‘Nat King Cole/Ethel Waters Day’ for the occasion.
Waters has had three of her recordings inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame: “Dinah” (Columbia Records, 1925) in 1998; “Stormy Weather” (Brunswick Records, 1933) in 2003; and “Am I Blue?” (Columbia Records, 1929) in 2007. Her “Stormy Weather” recording was also inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2004.
Won a Joseph Jefferson Award as Best Guest Artist in a Locally Produced Play in 1970 for her performance in “The Member of the Wedding” at the Ivanhoe Theatre in Chicago. The award was presented to her by Cyd Charisse.
Often appeared on the various radio & TV shows of New York City media couple “Tex & Jinx” (John Reagan ‘Tex’ McCrary & Eugenia ‘Jinx’ Lincoln Falkenberg). Waters appeared as a regular on the Tex & Jinx TV Show over WNBT in NYC starting January 29, 1954.
October 15, 1953 was designated “Ethel Waters Day” in New York City by Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri. Waters was honored in a City Hall ceremony by the Mayor and the Negro Actors Guild for her “limitless and tireless efforts” in advancing the country’s democratic ideals at home and abroad. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, founders of the Guild, were on hand for the occasion.
There is a park named in her honor in her hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania. Ethel Waters Park is located at Third & Dock Streets and a plaque reading “dedicated to the city of Chester for the enjoyment of its people” was placed there May 1, 1972 following “Ethel Waters Week,” which ran from April 24th to April 30, 1972. April 30, 1972 was proclaimed “Ethel Waters Day” in Pennsylvania by then governor Milton Shapp. Waters was on hand for the ceremonies.
Universal Pictures announced in November 1968 that they would be making a movie version of Waters autobiography “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” from a screenplay by Peter S. Feibleman, with Julian Blaustein producing. It was planned to use an unknown to play Waters but the film was never made.
Waters made headlines in January 1957 when she appeared on the game show “Break the $250,000 Bank” and announced that she was broke and needed the money to pay off back taxes owed to the I.R.S. She won $10,000 by the end of her second week (her winning category was religious music) when the show was abruptly canceled. She accepted the chance to appear on the new show, “Hold That Note” but she wasn’t the winner when she appeared on the first episode of the new series.
I just let singing out the way it comes to me. Once the orchestra gets used to letting themselves go, everything works out fine. The song is really the main thing, the song and the way you sing it.
I guess singing is the traditional outlet for the colored people. The very thing that is paramount in my mind I can find expression for in just humming a song. But, of course, there is solid prayer for other things in my mind. Oh, I can get angry and curse a little (of course, the Lord look the other way). I don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, don’t get that idea. But I have a vocabulary without the Lord’s name that could raise the roof. You understand what I’m saying, sugar?