Ethel Waters (1896 - 1977)

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Ethel Waters
1896 - 1977
October 31, 1896
Chester, Delaware County, Pennsylvania United States
September 1, 1977
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California United States
Last Known Residence
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California 90014
Ethel Waters was born on October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. She died on September 1, 1977 in Los Angeles, California at age 80.
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Updated: October 26, 2019
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
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Ethel Waters
Most commonly known as
Ethel Waters
Full name
Other names or aliases
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California 90014
Last known residence
Ethel Waters was born on in Chester, Delaware County, Pennsylvania United States
Ethel Waters died on in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California United States
Ethel Waters was born on in Chester, Delaware County, Pennsylvania United States
Ethel Waters died on in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California United States


After her start in Baltimore, Waters toured on the black vaudeville circuit, in her words "from nine until unconscious." 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."

Personal Life

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.
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.
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. The play was based on a book of the same name by DuBose Heyward.

Waters in 1957
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."
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. 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.

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Waters died on September 1, 1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer, kidney failure, and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California. Waters is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale).
Awards and honors
Her recording of "Stormy Weather" (1933) was listed in the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress in 2003.
Gospel Music Hall of Fame, 1983
Christian Music Hall of Fame, 2007
Waters was approved for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004.
In 2015, a historical marker memorializing Waters was unveiled along Route 291 in Chester, Pennsylvania to recognize her life and talents in the city of her birth.
Commemorative stamp, U.S. Post Office, 1994
Nomination, Best Supporting Actress, Academy Awards, Pinky 1949
Nomination, Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Series, Primetime Emmy Awards, for Route 66 "Goodnight Sweet Blues", 1962
Three recordings by Waters were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old and have "qualitative or historical significance."
Ethel Waters: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards
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
On with the Show (1929) as Ethel
Gift of Gab (1934) as Ethel Waters
Tales of Manhattan (1942) as Esther
Cairo (1942) as Cleona Jones
Cabin in the Sky (1943) as Petunia Jackson
Stage Door Canteen (1943) as Ethel Waters
Pinky (1949) as Dicey Johnson
The Member of the Wedding (1952) as Berenice Sadie Brown
Carib Gold (1957) as Mom
The Heart Is a Rebel (1958) as Gladys
The Sound and the Fury (1959) as Dilsey
Short subjects
Rufus Jones for President (1933) as Mother of Rufus Jones
Bubbling Over (1934) as Ethel Peabody
Let My People Live (1939)
First African American, male or female, to star in own TV show, The Ethel Waters Show, which was broadcast on NBC on June 14, 1939
TV guest appearances from 1950 to 1952 on The Jackie Gleason Show, Texaco Star Theater, This Is Show Business, What's My Line?, and The Chesterfield Supper Club[41]
Person to Person (1954)[42]
Whirlybirds, episode "The Big Lie" (1959)
Route 66, episode "Good Night, Sweet Blues" (1961)
The Hollywood Palace, hosted by Diana Ross and the Supremes (1969)[43]
Daniel Boone, episode "Mamma Cooper" (1970)
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)

Refresh this page to see various historical events that occurred during Ethel's lifetime.

In 1896, in the year that Ethel Waters was born, on May 18th, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. By a vote of 7 to 1, the Court upheld state racial segregation laws, introducing the idea of "separate but equal" facilities for races.

In 1906, Ethel was merely 10 years old when author Upton Sinclair exposed the public-health threat of the meat-packing industry in his book The Jungle. While his intent was to show the lives of exploited lives of immigrants in Chicago and other industrialized cities, most people were horrified by how the meat that ended up on their tables was handled. There was such an outcry that legislation was passed to regulate meat packing. Sinclair said " "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

In 1912, Ethel was 16 years old when Arizona was admitted to the United States in February (on Valentine's Day). It became the 48th state in the Union. Previously a Spanish - then Mexican - territory, the U.S. paid $15 million dollars for the area in 1848. Arizona was the last of the contiguous states to be admitted to the United States.

In 1920, by the time she was 24 years old, Italian born factory worker Nicola Sacco and fish peddler Bartolomeo Vanzetti were picked up by police on May 5th in connection with the April 15th murder and robbery of a guard and a paymaster at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, Mass. Although in later years they were thought to be innocent, they were anarchists and were convicted of the crime and put to death.

In 1977, in the year of Ethel Waters's passing, on May 25th, Star Wars premiered in theaters. Eventually, it became the highest-grossing film of all time - until E.T. surpassed it a few years later. It was an immediate hit with theatergoers.

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