A Film by Michael Kantor



Ethel Waters

One of the most influential of popular singers, Waters’ early career found her working in vaudeville. As a consequence, her repertoire was more widely based and popularly angled than those of many of her contemporaries. It is reputed that she was the first singer to perform W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” in public, and she later popularized blues and jazz-influenced songs such as “Stormy Weather” and “Travelin’ All Alone,” also scoring a major success with “Dinah.” She first recorded in 1921, and on her early sessions she was accompanied by artists such as Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, James P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington. Significantly, for her acceptance in white circles, she also recorded with Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey.

Waters performs "Heat Wave" in Irving Berlin's "As Thousands Cheer."

From the late ’20s, Waters appeared in several Broadway musicals, including “Africana,” “Blackbirds of 1930,” “Rhapsody in Black,” “As Thousands Cheer,” “At Home Abroad,” and “Cabin in the Sky,” in which she introduced several diverting songs such as “I’m Coming Virginia,” “Baby Mine,” “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More,” “Till the Real Thing Comes Along,” “Suppertime,” “Harlem on My Mind,” “Heat Wave,” “Got a Bran’ New Suit” (with Eleanor Powell), “Hottentot Potentate,” and “Cabin in the Sky.” In the ’30s she stopped the show regularly at the Cotton Club in Harlem with “Stormy Weather,” and appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1938. She played a few dramatic roles in the theater, and appeared in several films, including “On with the Show,” “Check and Double Check,” “Gift of the Gab,” “Tales of Manhattan,” “Cairo,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Stage Door Canteen,” “Pinky,” “Member of the Wedding,” and “The Sound and the Fury.” In the ’50s she appeared in the U.S. television series BEULAH for a while, and had her own Broadway show, “An Evening with Ethel Waters” (1957).

Ethel Waters

Born: October 31, 1896
Died: September 1, 1977
Key Shows
  • "As Thousands Cheer"
  • "Cabin in the Sky"
  • "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds"
Related Artists
  • Harold Arlen
  • Irving Berlin
  • Eubie Blake
  • E.Y. "Yip" Harburg

From the late ’20s, Waters appeared in several Broadway musicals.

Throughout the ’60s and on into the mid-’70s she sang as a member of the organization that accompanied evangelist Billy Graham. Although less highly regarded in blues and jazz circles than either Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong, in the ’30s Waters transcended the boundaries of these musical forms to far greater effect than either of these artists and spread her influence throughout popular music. Countless young hopefuls emulated her sophisticated, lilting vocal style and her legacy lived on in the work of outstanding and, ironically, frequently better-known successors, such as Connee Boswell, Ruth Etting, Adelaide Hall, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald. Even Billie Holiday (with whom Waters was less than impressed, commenting, “She sings as though her shoes are too tight”), acknowledged her influence. A buoyant, high-spirited singer with a light, engaging voice that frequently sounded “whiter” than most of her contemporaries, Waters’ career was an object lesson in determination and inner drive. Her appalling childhood problems and troubled early life, recounted in the first part of her autobiography, HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, were overcome through grit and the application of her great talent.


Source: Biographical information provided by MUZE. Excerpted from the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC, edited by Colin Larkin. © 2004 MUZE UK Ltd.

Photo credits: Photofest and the New York Public Library