For me, Ethel Waters had one of those classic ‘20’s’ movie voices, open, smooth and somehow reflecting a quiet feminine strength. She was born on 31st October 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. The child of a teenage rape victim, Ethel Waters grew up in the slums of Philadelphia and neighbouring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. “No one raised me, ” she recollected, “I just ran wild.”
She excelled not only at looking after herself, but also at singing and dancing; she began performing at church functions, and as a teenager was locally renowned for her “hip shimmy shake”. I’ve seen many photographs of Ethel, in some she looks quite ordinary, in others stunning, (like the one here) but regardless of the photographer’s talent at the time in my view she has one of those faces that radiate life and beauty the moment she starts singing.
To most minds I’m sure, her Blues renditions were smoother, more ‘cinema-friendly’ than those of the more aggressive perhaps rougher approaches made by some of the better known Blues performers of her time, both male and female. A classic example of her style is apparent in her version of ‘Am I Blue’ – in the film, ‘On With The Show’ released in 1929.
In 1917 she made her debut on the black vaudeville circuit; billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” for her tall, lithe build. She broke into the public awareness with her rendition of “St. Louis Blues”, which Ethel performed in a softer, subtler style than her rivals, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Beginning with her appearances in Harlem nightclubs in the late 1920s, then on the lucrative “white time” vaudeville circuit, she became one of America’s best known and highest-paid entertainers.
At the Cotton Club, she introduced “Stormy Weather”, composed for her by Harold Arlen (no American in my view has written more first-rate songs of this type than Arlen), she wrote of her performance, “I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted”.
Impressed by this performance, Irving Berlin wrote “Supper Time”, a song about a lynching, (which sounds a bit heavy handed I suppose, the lyrics never actually mention a lynching, they describe a mother wondering, as she prepares supper for her children how she will explain her husband’s absence). He wrote this specifically for Waters to perform in a Broadway revue. Anyone for whom Irving Berlin or Harold Arlen has written a song, let alone both of them, has absolutely definitely arrived.
She later became the first African-American star of a national radio show. In middle age, first on Broadway and then in the movies, she successfully recast herself as a dramatic actress. Devoutly religious but famously difficult to get along with, Waters found few roles worthy of her talents in her later years.
‘Sweet Mama Stringbean’ passed away in Chatsworth, California on 1st September 1977