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Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was vocalist and actress who was a key figure in the development of African American culture between the two World Wars. She broke barrier after barrier, becoming the first black woman heard on the radio, the first black singer to perform on television, the first African American to perform in an integrated cast on Broadway, and the first black woman to perform in a lead dramatic role on Broadway. She opened all the theatrical doors hitherto closed to black performers of her day, to attain the towering position she reached as a headliner.
Born October 31, 1896, in Chester, Pennsylvania, she had to overcome the squalor of her sordid childhood and early struggles. As a result of the rape of her teenaged mother, Louise Anderson (believed to have been thirteen years old at the time) by John Waters, a pianist and family acquaintance from a mixed-race middle-class background, who played no role in raising Ethel. 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.
Her singing career began on her 17th birthday, she attended a costume party at a nightclub on Juniper Street and was persuaded to sing two songs. She impressed the audience so much that she slowly moved in the black theater circuit, where she was billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean.” She began recording in 1921 for the Black Swan label, continuing with that company through 1924. When she introduced “Dinah” at the famous Plantation Club (Broadway and 50th Street) in New York City in 1925, she met with such success that she was signed by Columbia Records, for whom she was to make many of her most famous recordings during the next decade. Her career continued to escalate in such black shows as ‘Africana,’ ‘The Blackbirds of 1928’ (and 1930) and ‘Rhapsody in Black.’ In 1929, she made her film debut in the new talking films, singing “Am I Blue?” and “Birmingham Bertha” in ‘On with the Show,’ remade a few years later as ‘Forty-Second Street.’
In 1933, her sensational rendition of “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club made her the talk of the town; when Irving Berlin heard her sing it, she was signed for his ‘As Thousands Cheer.’ She stopped the show with “Heat Wave” and “Suppertime” and was elevated to co-starring status. At the same time, she became the first Negro to star in a sponsored coast-to-coast radio show, accompanied by the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra.
Her Broadway career continued its spectacular ascent with the hit shows ‘At Home Abroad,’ ‘Mamba's Daughters,’ ‘Cabin in the Sky,’ and ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Later, she filmed the latter two, appearing also in ‘Gift of Gab,’ ‘Cairo,’ ‘Tales of Manhattan,’ ‘Pinky,’ and ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ These films and her numerous recordings remain a legacy for audiences too young to have been or heard this legendary performer at her peak.
She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1949 for the film Pinky. 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 of Member of the Wedding'' In 1950, Waters starred in the television series Beulah but quit after complaining that the scripts' 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.
Despite these successes, her brilliant career was fading. She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and the IRS hounded her. 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, which was adapted for a stage production in which she was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson, in which she wrote candidly about her life. She explains why her age has often been misstated, saying that her mother had to sign a paper saying she was four years older than she was, and that she was born in 1896. In her second autobiography, To Me, It's Wonderful, Waters states that she was born in 1900. 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."
Her last years were spent touring with the evangelist Billy Graham, still performing occasionally, until her death on September 2, 1977, in Chatsworth, California.