Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was an American singer and actress. Waters frequently performed jazz, swing, and pop music on the Broadway stage and in concerts, but she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. Waters notable recordings include "Dinah", "Stormy Weather", "Taking a Chance on Love", "Heat Wave", "Supper Time", "Am I Blue?", "Cabin in the Sky", "I'm Coming Virginia", and her version of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow". Waters was the second African American to be nominated for an Academy Award. She was the first African-American to star on her own television show and the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award.

Ethel Waters
Born(1896-10-31)October 31, 1896[1]
DiedSeptember 1, 1977(1977-09-01) (aged 80)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, U.S.
Other names
  • Ethel Howard
  • Sweet Mama Stringbean
  • Actress
  • singer
Years active1917–1977
Merritt Purnsley
(m. 1909; div. 1913)
Clyde E. Matthews
(m. 1929; div. 1933)
Edward Mallory
(m. 1938; div. 1945)
RelativesCrystal Waters[4] (great-niece)
Musical career

Early life

Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1896 (although some sources state her birth year as 1900[5][1]), as a result of the rape of her teenaged African-American mother, Louise Anderson (1881–1962)[1] (believed to have been 15 years old at the time, although some sources indicate she may have been slightly older), by John Waters, (1878–1901),[1]a pianist and family acquaintance from a mixed-race, middle-class background. He played no role in raising Ethel.[6] Soon after she was born, her mother married Norman Howard, a railroad worker. Ethel used the surname Howard as a child and then reverted to her father's name.[7] She was raised in poverty by Sally Anderson, her grandmother, who worked as a housemaid, and with two of her aunts and an uncle.[8] Waters never lived in the same place for more than 15 months. Of her difficult childhood, she said "I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family."[9]

Waters grew tall, standing 5 feet 9.5 inches (1.765 m) in her teens. According to 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.[10] She recalled that she earned the rich sum of $10 per week, but her managers cheated her out of the tips her admirers threw on the stage.



After her start in Baltimore, Waters toured on the black vaudeville circuit, in her words "from nine until unconscious."[11] Despite her early success, she fell on hard times and joined a carnival traveling in freight cars headed for Chicago. She 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." But she did not last long with them and soon headed south to Atlanta, where she worked in the same club as 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 became a performer in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Her first Harlem job was at Edmond's Cellar, a club with a black patronage that specialized in popular ballads. She acted in a blackface comedy, Hello 1919. 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, for tiny Cardinal Records. She later joined Black Swan, 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."[12]

She recorded for Black Swan from 1921 through 1923.[13] Her contract with Harry Pace made her the highest paid black recording artist at the time.[14] In early 1924, Paramount bought Black Swan, and she stayed with Paramount through the year.

She first recorded for Columbia in 1925, achieving a hit with "Dinah". She started working with Pearl Wright, and 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 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 September 1926, Waters recorded "I'm Coming Virginia", composed by Donald Heywood with lyrics by Will Marion Cook. She is often wrongly attributed as the author. The following year, Waters sang it in a production of Africana at Broadway's Daly's Sixty-Third Street Theatre.[15] In 1929, Waters and Wright arranged the unreleased Harry Akst song "Am I Blue?", which was used in the movie On with the Show and became a hit and her signature song.[16]

Film, theater, and television

In 1933, Waters appeared in 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." In 1933, she had a featured role in the successful Irving Berlin Broadway musical revue As Thousands Cheer with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick.[8]

She became the first black woman to integrate Broadway's theater district, often referred to at the time as the Great White Way, more than a decade after actor Charles Gilpin's critically acclaimed performances in the plays of Eugene O'Neill beginning with The Emperor Jones in 1920.[17]

Waters held three jobs: in As Thousands Cheer, as a singer for Jack Denny & His Orchestra on a national radio program,[8] and in nightclubs. She became the highest-paid performer on Broadway.[18] Despite this status, she had difficulty finding work. She moved to Los Angeles to appear in the 1942 film Cairo. During the same year, she reprised her starring stage role as Petunia in the all-black film musical Cabin in the Sky directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Lena Horne as the ingenue. Conflicts arose when Minnelli swapped songs from the original script between Waters and Horne:[19] Waters wanted to perform "Honey in the Honeycomb" as a ballad, but Horne wanted to dance to it. Horne broke her ankle and the songs were reversed. She got the ballad and Waters the dance. Waters did sing the Academy Award nominated "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe".[19]

In 1939 Waters became the first African American to star in her own television show before Nat King Cole appeared in 1956. The Ethel Waters Show, a 15-minute variety special, appeared on NBC on June 14, 1939; it included a dramatic performance of the Broadway play Mamba's Daughters based in the Gullah community of South Carolina and produced with her in mind.[20][21] The play was based on a book of the same name by DuBose Heyward.[22]

She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky (1949) under the direction of Elia Kazan after the first 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."[23]

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 repeated their roles in the 1952 film version. In 1950, Waters was the first African American actress to star in the television series Beulah. It was first nationally broadcast weekly television series starring an African-American in the leading role appearing on ABC television from 1950 to 1953. She quit, after complaining that the portrayal of blacks was "degrading", and was replaced by Louise Beavers in its third season.[24] She guest-starred in 1957 and 1959 on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. In a 1957 episode, she sang "Cabin in the Sky".[25] Her appearance in a 1961 episode of Route 66 received a 1962 Primetime Emmy Award nomination, the first dramatic performance by a black performer so recognized (male or female), as well as the first black woman nominated for an Emmy.

She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and she had difficulties with the Internal Revenue Service. Her health suffered, and she worked 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.[26]

Personal life and death

Waters married three times and had no children. When she was 13, she married Merritt "Buddy" Purnsley in 1909, and they divorced in 1913.[2] She married Clyde Edwards Matthews in 1929, and they divorced in 1933.[1] She married Edward Mallory.[3] in 1938, and they divorced in 1945.[1] Waters was the great-aunt of the singer-songwriter Crystal Waters.[4]

In 1938, Waters met artist Luigi Lucioni through their mutual friend, Carl Van Vechten. Lucioni asked Waters if he could paint her portrait, and a sitting was arranged at his studio on Washington Square. Waters bought the finished portrait from Lucioni in 1939 for $500. She was at the height of her career in 1939. She was the first African American to have a starring role on Broadway. In her portrait, she wore a tailored red dress with a mink coat draped over the back of her chair. Lucioni positioned Waters with her arms tightly wrapped around her waist, a gesture that conveys a sense of vulnerability as if she were trying to protect herself. In 2017, the Huntsville Museum of Art (HMA) acquired the Portrait of Ethel Waters. HMA Executive Director Christopher J. Madkour and historian Stuart Embury tracked down the painting, which was considered lost because it had not been viewed by the public since 1942. But they traced it to a private residence in 2016. The owner allowed the Huntsville Museum of Art to display Portrait of Ethel Waters in the exhibition American Romantic: The Art of Luigi Lucioni, where it was viewed by the public for the first time in over 70 years. The museum negotiated the purchase of the painting and, thanks in part to the generosity of the Huntsville community, Lucioni's Portrait of Ethel Waters is on public display at the Huntsville Museum of Art in Huntsville, Alabama.[27]

By 1955, Ethel was deeply in debt with the IRS hounding her for back taxes and seizing the royalties of her work. Yet Ethel had faced lean and mean times many times before.[28] A turning point came when Ethel attended the Billy Graham Crusade in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1957. She entered the Garden that night a disillusioned, lonely, 61-year-old woman. She had become successful at giving out happiness, but her personal life lacked peace. She was in debt, was having physical problems, as well as being much too heavy to perform comfortably, and was worried about her career.[29]

Years later, she gave this testimony of that night: "In 1957, I, Ethel Waters, a 380-pound decrepit old lady, rededicated my life to Jesus Christ, and boy, because He lives, just look at me now. I tell you because He lives; and because my precious child, Billy, gave me the opportunity to stand there, I can thank God for the chance to tell you His eye is on all of us sparrows."[30]

In her later years, Waters often toured with the preacher Billy Graham on his crusades.[31] Waters died on September 1, 1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer, kidney failure, and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California.[32] Waters is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale).[33]

Awards and honors

Ethel Waters: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards[39]
Year 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

Hit records

Year Single US chart[40]
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



Short subjects


Stage appearances

  • Hello 1919! (1919)
  • Jump Steady (1922)
  • Plantation Revue (1925)
  • Black Bottom (1926)
  • Miss Calico (1926–27)
  • Paris Bound (1927)
  • Africana (1927)
  • The Ethel Waters Broadway Revue (1928)
  • Lew Leslie's Blackbirds (1930)
  • Rhapsody in Black (1931)
  • Broadway to Harlem (1932)
  • As Thousands Cheer (1933–34)
  • At Home Abroad (1935–36)
  • Mamba's Daughters (1939; 1940)
  • Cabin in the Sky (1940–41)
  • Laugh Time (1943)
  • Blue Holiday (1945)
  • The Member of the Wedding (1950–51)
  • At Home with Ethel Waters (1953)
  • The Voice of Strangers (1956)


  1. Bourne, Stephen (10 July 2018). "Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather". Scarecrow Press. Retrieved 10 July 2018 via Google Books.
  2. Dobrin, Arnold (10 July 1972). "Voices of joy, Voices of Freedom: Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne". Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. Retrieved 10 July 2018 via Google Books.
  3. Manning, Frankie; Millman, Cynthia R. (10 July 2018). "Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop". Temple University Press. Retrieved 10 July 2018 via Google Books.
  4. "The Story of Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)"". 8 April 2016. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  5. "Ethel Waters". Retrieved 10 July 2018.
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  7. Ethel Waters. Retrieved 25 September 2016.
  8. Robinson, Alice M.; Roberts, Vera Mowry; Barranger, Milly, eds. (1989). Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 903.
  9. Waters, Ethel; Samuels, Charles T. (1951). His Eye on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday.
  10. "50th Year for Lincoln Theater". Baltimore Afro American. September 12, 1959. Retrieved March 17, 2011.
  11. "Waters, Ethel". Current Biography. H. W. Wilson: 899–900. 1941. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  12. Waters, Ethel; Samuels, Charles T. (1992). His Eye on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 147.
  13. Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  14. "The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records". Retrieved 2018-03-20.
  15. "I'm Coming Virginia (1927)". Retrieved 14 March 2017.
  16. Bogle, Donald (2011). Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. HarperCollins. p. 656. ISBN 9780062041722.
  17. Simpson, Janice (22 February 2015). "Pivotal Moments in Broadway's Black History". Playbill. Retrieved 2018-03-07.
  18. "Ethel Waters". Retrieved 2018-03-07 via Contemporary Black Biography, Thomson Gale, 2005.
  19. Looney, Deborah. "Cabin in the Sky". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2018-03-07.
  20. "First Black Seen on Television". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  21. "Waters, Ethel: Africana. The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience" (2 ed.). doi:10.1093/aasc/9780195170559.013.4039. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. "Mamba's Daughters Broadway". Playbill. Retrieved 2017-03-01.
  23. Eyman, Scott (1999). Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. Johns Hopkins University. p. 361.
  24. "Beulah". Archive of American Television. Retrieved 2017-03-01.
  25. Bourne, Stephen (2007). Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-5902-5. Retrieved November 25, 2010.
  26. Waters, Ethel (1972). To Me, It's Wonderful. New York: Harper & Row. OCLC 329566.
  27. Embury, Dr. Stuart (2018). Art and Soul - Luigi Lucioni and Ethel Waters: A Friendship. Huntsville, Alabama: Huntsville Museum of Art. pp. 3, 22.
  28. Hale, Ron F. (May 2, 2016). "Ethel Waters: The Sparrow that Soared". Christian Index. Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  29. Knaack, Twila (1978). Ethel Waters: I Touched A sparrow. Word Books. p. 41.
  30. Hale, Ron F. (May 2, 2016). "Ethel Waters: The Sparrow that Soared". Christian Index. Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  31. White, Alvin E. (November 19, 1977). "Ethel Waters Remembered". The Afro American. Retrieved November 16, 2010.
  32. Bogle, Donald (2011). Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. New York: HarperCollins.
  33. Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3d ed.). McFarland & Company. Kindle edition. Kindle location 49813.
  34. "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.
  35. "A Star for Ethel Waters: Home". Archived from the original on 25 September 2017. Retrieved 15 November 2018.
  36. Quinn, Rose. "Chester great Ethel Waters memorialized in marker on Route 291". Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  37. Tucker, Richard (2003-07-03). "Ethel Waters: Commemorative Stamp". Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections. Archived from the original on 2008-09-08. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  38. "Awards Database: Ethel Waters". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  39. "Grammy Hall of Fame". The Recording Academy. 2007. Archived from the original on 2010-12-24. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  40. Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories: 1890-1954. Record Research. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  41. Bogle, Donald (2011). Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. HarperCollins. p. 466. ISBN 9780062041722.
  42. Bogle, pp. 476-77.
  43. "Episode #6.22". 8 March 1969. Retrieved 10 July 2018.

Further reading

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