Ethel Waters was American blues, jazz and gospel singer, and actress. 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. (Wikipedia)
Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 1896, and by the age of 17 was singing professionally in Baltimore. It was there that she became the first woman to sing “St. Louis Blues” on the stage. In 1925 she appeared at the Plantation Club in Harlem, and her performance there led to Broadway. In 1927 she appeared in an all-black revue Africana. Thereafter she divided her time between the stage, nightclubs, and eventually movies. (Wikipedia)
Ms. Waters had a troubled childhood. Born as the result of rape, she was raised in poverty and never lived in the same place for more than 15 months. Waters said of her difficult upbringing, “I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.”
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.” 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.
Around 1919, Waters moved to Harlem and there became a celebrity performer in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In 1921, women blues singers were among the most powerful entertainers in the country and Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record, on the tiny Cardinal Records label.
As her career continued, she evolved into a blues and Broadway singer, performing with artists such as Duke Ellington and starring at the Cotton Club.
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. (Wikipedia)
Ms. Waters was the highest-paid performer on Broadway starring as Petunia in the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky. In 1942 Ms. Waters reprised her stage role of 1940 in the film, directed by Vincente Minnelli; it was a huge success.
Adding to her list of accomplishments, Ms. Waters was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the controversial film “Pinky“ (1949) about a light-skinned black woman passing for white; directed by Elia Kazan.
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”. (Wikipedia)
Despite her earlier successes, by the 1950’s Ms. Waters remarkable career was fading. As her health suffered, she worked only sporadically. In 1950–51 she wrote her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow with Charles Samuels, in which she wrote candidly about her life.
His Eye Is on the Sparrow was adapted for a stage production in which she was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson. Her second autobiography was titled – To Me, It’s Wonderful.
American feminist and jazz historian 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.”