Everett Collection

Ethel Waters, 1926

“The Mother of Us All.” That’s what the jazz critic Gary Giddins calls Ethel Waters. But why?

She was a pioneer, yes, but that’s not what he’s talking about—lots of pioneers go unheralded or are quickly forgotten. It’s not enough to have been first, even to have been first at the many things Waters was first at. It’s the quality of her accomplishments and their variety, as well as her unique place in our entertainment history, that make her life and her art of such pivotal significance.

She was one of the very first black women to record (it was in 1921). She was the first to have her own radio program, to star in a Broadway show along with major white stars, and to star on Broadway in a serious drama. She was the second black actor to be nominated for an Oscar, for Pinky. (Hattie McDaniel had won for Gone with the Wind.) She was, as far as I know, the first popular entertainer to have produced a serious autobiography—His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1951)—that was not only authentic but a best seller.

Here are some of the songs she introduced, apart from being the first woman to sing “St. Louis Blues”: “Stormy Weather,” “Dinah,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Am I Blue?,” “Heat Wave,” “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Supper Time.”

What kind of singer was she? She didn’t have a big voice or even an utterly distinctive one. She had no training:

I never had a singing lesson, and I never learned to play anything or read music. I could always sing a song after hearing it played or sung a couple of times. Then I would just sing it the way it made me feel.

She sang every kind of song, beginning with raunchy ones—“My Handy Man” (“He threads my needle, creams my wheat,/Heats my heater, chops my meat…”), “Shake That Thing,” “I Like the Way He Does It”—all dripping with double entendres though more to amuse than to provoke. She sang standards, from “I Got Rhythm” and “Georgia on my Mind” to “Miss Otis Regrets.” She sang heartbreaking songs (“Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor”) and ethnic songs (“Eli Eli,” a big success.) She wasn’t a shouter, like her contemporary Bessie Smith, or a transplanted exotic, like her rival Josephine Baker. She didn’t necessarily swing. You couldn’t pin her down. Yet she was the most successful woman singer of the Twenties and Thirties—and the best.

Apart from anything else, she had perfect articulation: despite her slum background, minimal education, and total lack of training, there was nothing down-and-dirty about her diction or enunciation—she could put on a Southern accent or go pickaninny if she had to, but her early years in Philadelphia left her with standard English, exquisitely pronounced and always at the service of the words she was singing. There were moments when she got a bit too exquisite, a touch fancy (or “dicty,” the word African-Americans of that period used for “snooty”). That aspect of her enunciation, rolling rs and all, leads directly to Mabel Mercer.

Whenever she talked about her singing—and she talked about it frequently—she stressed that for her, from the very beginning, every song was a drama. “It was always the story told in the song that enchanted me,” she wrote about her childhood, and that’s the way she sang: always singing a story. Which may be why, despite the staggering odds against her, she could make the transition from black vaudeville to Broadway revue to high drama: she was always acting, even when she was hymning her Handy Man. She subsumed herself in her material. Billie Holiday’s singing is about her feelings—she sang the song of herself; Waters sang the song of the song.

Because her voice is so clear and unpretentious, and because her phrasing is so exacting yet natural, she sounds modern even today. Besides, almost every major singer who followed her was partly formed by her, from Frank Sinatra to Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, and Mahalia Jackson (who praised her without reservation). Billie Holiday, a generation younger than Waters, had a personal grudge against her and denied that she had been influenced, but the connection is unmistakable. Waters sounds modern because those of her followers whom we think of as the great singers incorporate her and pass her along to us. This is what Giddins means when he calls her the Mother of Us All. In his list of the vocalists she affected, he includes (together with most of those listed above) Bing Crosby, Adelaide Hall, Ivie Anderson, Pearl Bailey, Mel Tormé, Bobby Short, and Barbra Streisand. And he sums up: “Along with Crosby and Louis Armstrong, she is the defining influence on American popular singing, and she preceded both of them.”


Why, then, given her stature as an artist and her historical importance, is this crucial figure so far from being an iconic figure today? The answer must lie in the nature of her art. She doesn’t impose a signature style on her singing: not the lilting and intimate swing of Holiday or the astounding Apollonian virtuosity of Ella Fitzgerald or the operatic grandeur of Sarah Vaughan. She wasn’t enough of a jazz singer to find herself in the jazz pantheon, or enough of a blues singer to become an idol of Sixties and Seventies rock stars like the Rolling Stones. What’s more, her singing fame came from way back in the Twenties and early Thirties, before the LP era, and later generations remembered her more as an actress than as a singer. And, finally, she didn’t have a tragic denouement, like Bessie Smith and Judy Garland and Holiday. She has only her body of great work to speak for her.

Ethel Waters came out of a tough world and she became a famously tough woman. Her autobiography begins:

I never was a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. I never felt I belonged. I was always an outsider. I was born out of wedlock, but that had nothing to do with all this. To people like mine a thing like that just didn’t mean much. Nobody brought me up. I just ran wild as a little girl. I was bad, always a leader of the street gang in stealing and general hell-raising.

When she was three she often slept in the same bed “with my aunts and my transient ‘uncles.'” (“By the time I was seven I was repelled by every aspect of sex.”) She rarely had a bed of her own—she slept anywhere she could—“on the floor, a broken-down couch, two chairs, an ironing board.”

Her mother, Louise—Ethel always called her “Momweeze”—was a not very bright young girl, one of four sisters. The year Ethel was born was 1896, although her “official” birth date was 1900. And the official story of her birth is that Louise, at twelve, was raped by a young man named John Waters,* much higher on the black social scale than Louise and her clan. He died when Ethel was five, and later there were isolated moments of communication between her and her white (or white- complected—no one’s sure) grandmother Waters, but it was her maternal grandmother, Sally Anderson, who was the dominant presence in her childhood—the woman she called “Mom.” It was Sally who mostly looked after her, made sure she was clean and presentable, made sure she got whatever education she got, instilled her own strong Protestant beliefs in her. (Momweeze had turned Catholic.)

Sally and her four daughters—Momweeze and her three sisters—were at the center of Ethel’s childhood. The girls were all musical and full of fun when not in the grip of alcohol or drugs, and all of them were loose in their ways. But never prostitutes, Ethel insisted—they slept around, but not for money, even though they lived in a ghetto that abounded in prostitution. To earn money for their liquor, the sisters did washing and ironing for the local whores, and one of Ethel’s childhood jobs, in which she always took pride, was to carry the laundry back and forth to the neighborhood bordellos. “I’ve always had great respect for whores. The many I’ve known were kind and generous…. I never knew a prostitute who did harm to anyone but herself.”

And she always respected hard work, no matter what it was. When her early nightclub and vaudeville income would run out, she’d go back to bussing dishes at Horn and Hardart’s Automat:

I got seventy-five cents a day with one hot meal thrown in. I didn’t look upon this as any comedown…. I’ve never been able to feel that there is anything undignified about making your living by the sweat of your brow.

At thirteen she was married off by Momweeze to a physically abusive young man named Buddy, but that didn’t last long:

When I brought Buddy his lunch at the steel plant he asked me to kiss him. I did, knowing it was good-by. As far as I was concerned, my husband was just a lost ball in the high weeds.

She started singing at parties and in local bars when she was in her early to mid-teens, and more or less drifted into the profession. She was tall (five foot nine) and strikingly thin (her initial stage name was Sweet Mama Stringbean). She appeared in crummy nightclubs; she toured the South in a revue called Hello, 1919!, sleeping in whorehouses because in many Southern small towns there was nowhere else for black entertainers to stay.


She spent a year or so on that first Southern tour, learning to work her audiences. Then back to Philadelphia, further touring, and finally a modest offer of a job in Harlem. Swiftly she developed a following, started making hit records for a new, black-owned company called Black Swan, was hooked up professionally with the upper-crust, educated pianist/bandleader Fletcher Henderson, and progressed from big-time vaudeville to major nightclubs to Broadway. If it sounds easy, though, it wasn’t. Waters had her tremendous talent to make it possible, but it took all her fierce competitiveness and ruthless drive to make it happen.

There were crucial milestones, the first, perhaps, a rave review from the renowned Chicago critic Ashton Stevens, who saw her in something called Plantation Days. The headline shouted “ASHTON STEVENS FINDS YVETTE GUILBERT OF HER RACE IN ETHEL WATERS!”—an extraordinary compliment, given Guilbert’s exalted standing as an international star—and he went on to say, “She is the most remarkable woman of her race that I have seen in the theater.” This was an accolade worth having.

In New York she was becoming a highly visible figure, her profile enhanced by the praise, sponsorship, and friendship of the fashionable critic, photographer, novelist (Nigger Heaven), and self-proclaimed Negrophile Carl Van Vechten. Not only did he write passionately about her talent, but he introduced her to a large segment of New York’s elite, not only white but black: he was the conduit between her and leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance such as Zora Neale Hurston. “I am probably the only person in America, pink or brown, connected with her early life in any way, who doesn’t claim that he discovered her,” Van Vechten boasted. He understood her, and was frank with her: “Ethel, you never ask anyone for anything, and you never thank anyone for anything.” He was the one white person she really trusted, and they would remain close friends for life.


Rue des Archives/Granger Collection

Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington, 1943

In 1929, having to rest her throat, she traveled to Paris with her (sort-of) husband, Eddie Matthews, where she did a little singing and had a tricky operation to remove a nodule from her left vocal cord. “I met a lot of people in Paris,” she wrote, and “Radclyffe Hall, the author of The Well of Loneliness, was the most interesting of them.” This does not come as a surprise, since Waters made no bones about her lesbianism or bisexuality—Donald Bogle, in Heat Wave, tells us that she once boasted to a friend that she was a lesbian, and “the best that ever did it”—and Hall’s novel was notorious for its lesbian sympathies. What is surprising is that Waters would have dangled this clue to her inclinations before the world by deliberately inserting it in her autobiography.

In 1927 she made her first “legitimate” appearance, in a revue called Africana, produced and staged by her ambitious “husband,” Earl Dancer. It wasn’t a great show, but it established her as a real Broadway presence. “For the most part,” wrote E.B. White in the fledgling New Yorker, “Africana is a good dancing show, starring the towering Ethel Waters, who, although new to this commentator, seemed to have a generous, mixed following. With her sleek, boyish bob, tall frame, and cavernous jaw of white ivories, she possesses the tall, supple beauty of an African gun-bearer.” (Not to be outdone in political incorrectness, The New York Times referred to her as “the engaging dusky songstress.”)

Success followed success. In 1929, she was featured in a Warner Brothers backstage musical, On with the Show, making a big hit with “Am I Blue?” (She was seen in a cotton field, in a polka-dot dress with a bandanna, toting a big basket of fresh-picked cotton.) It became a number-one hit record. In 1932, she was voted America’s top black female star in a Pittsburgh Courier readers’ poll. (The Mills Brothers topped the male poll.) In 1933, at the famous Cotton Club, she introduced “Stormy Weather,” backed by Duke Ellington. It became her greatest success—another number-one hit, and according to Variety, “the biggest song hit of the past ten years.”

Later that year, she was invited by Irving Berlin to appear in what would turn out to be the period’s classiest revue, As Thousands Cheer—book by Moss Hart, starring Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, and Helen Broderick, all tremendous Broadway favorites. (She received a kind of separate-but-almost-equal billing.) Berlin wrote four big numbers for her. Most explosive was the sizzling “Heat Wave” (“We’re having a heat wave/A tropical heat wave/The temperature’s rising/It isn’t surprising/She certainly can can-can”)—reprised by Marilyn Monroe in There’s No Business Like Show Business.

But the greatest impact came from “Supper Time,” in which Waters appeared as a woman making dinner while aware that “That man of mine/Ain’t comin’ home no more.” Written six years before “Strange Fruit,” this intense song about lynching caused a sensation. “I was so emotionally moved when I first let myself go at the dress rehearsal,” Waters said, “that I sobbed uncontrollably for 10 minutes after the number was finished.” As Bogle suggests, “Supper Time” proved that she could create “a compelling character, mournful, angry, devastated, altogether moving.” In other words, that she was a bona fide actress.

There were backstage problems with As Thousands Cheer. Waters felt that her white costars were both racist and patronizing. She did not take such treatment passively. In time, Bogle tells us, her coworkers learned to stay out of her way, and he quotes her as saying, “I’m the kind of a woman, if I was mad at you, I’d just as leave kill you as look at you. I can fight and love to fight. I got a look that’s poison ivy and will gorge [gouge?] you.”

She was now, however, a Broadway star, with three important stage successes still to come. In 1939, there was Mamba’s Daughters, by DuBose Heyward, author of Porgy, and his wife, Dorothy, the first dramatic play to star a black actor. For her, it was a way of expressing her feelings about her mother, and since she didn’t know how to create a character from the outside, she performed the role of the self-sacrificing Hagar, as she repeatedly said, as if she was Hagar: “Nobody told me what to do. I’m Hagar inside of me and on the stage…every night I live through it again.” Yet this way of working was only an extension of the way she approached every song she sang—she inhabited it.

The unique all-black “musical fantasy” Cabin in the Sky followed in 1940, with a superb score by Vernon Duke and John Latouche and directed by George Balanchine. Waters was Petunia, a good woman fighting for the soul of her well-meaning but morally slippery man in a fight to the death between the Lawd’s General and Lucifer Jr. Petunia and God win out, but not until she’s staggered the audience with that all-time show-stopper “Taking a Chance on Love.” When MGM filmed the show in 1943, it was directed by Vincente Minnelli (it was his first movie), and it was his lot to preside over the notorious clash between Waters and the young, ravishingly beautiful Lena Horne. Horne knew that Waters was gunning for her, and when the fuse was lit, as Horne reported in her autobiography,

Miss Waters started to blow like a hurricane. It was an all-encompassing outburst, touching everyone and everything that got in the way…. We had to shut down the set for the rest of the day.

Her final and greatest stage success was as Berenice, the family cook in Carson McCullers’s 1950 adaptation of her novel The Member of the Wedding. Although she was at a low point in her career, Waters refused to take the role until she was able to convince McCullers to eliminate her character’s smoking and drinking and, more important, to put God into the drama. (Through these years, her religion had been growing more and more central to her life.) She played Berenice on Broadway for more than a year, then on tour, and eventually in Fred Zinnemann’s film—together, as on the stage, with the young Julie Harris as Frankie, the twelve-year-old girl who wants to be the member of her sister’s wedding, and the even younger Brandon de Wilde as Frankie’s little cousin. Harris became Waters’s “precious baby girl”—another stand-in for the children she never had.

Despite this string of notable performances and her quarter-century of fame, there was no consistency to Ethel Waters’s career. How many roles like Petunia and Berenice were there? She was by now no longer “Sweet Mama Stringbean,” she was obese—three hundred pounds by the time of The Member of the Wedding. Nor, of course, was she easy to work with. “She seemed to have compiled a list of resentments or grudges against the white world,” writes Bogle, “but that list brought out the contradictory sides of her personality. Her religion taught her to forgive, to be tolerant, understanding, and loving—but there was no way she could love the people who treated her in such a way.” She so resisted director John Ford’s approach to her role in Pinky that Darryl Zanuck had him replaced by Elia Kazan, who called her “a unique combination of old religiosity and free flowing hatred, always ready to overflow.” Zinnemann recalled:

Ethel was a wonderful, sad woman…. But she was also a very headstrong lady…. I remember that on several occasions when she disagreed with the directions I was giving her, she would look up to heaven and say: “God is my director.” You can imagine that it wasn’t easy to find a comeback to that kind of remark.

“She was a great artist,” said the actor Ossie Davis, “and a mean woman.”

As she reached her sixties, her professional life was petering out badly. She had the TV series Beulah behind her, and she made a number of other television appearances. She toured in a brief revival of Mamba’s Daughters. There were sporadic nightclub engagements, though not important ones. At the start of 1957—she was sixty—she was telling a bunch of New York reporters, “I am unemployed. I don’t have a quarter to my name.” She was in trouble with the IRS. And she was in trouble with the new civil rights movement. Although she had once worked hard in support of the NAACP, now, when Mike Wallace interviewed her and asked, “Are you a member of the NAACP?” she hesitated before answering “No.” “Do you agree with their work?” More hesitation, then, “I do my own thinking, and Ethel isn’t interested. I’m just not interested.” In addition, reports Bogle,

Ethel began to think that her career problems were the work of communists out to get her. No one could ever say for sure what led her to such a belief. But her long-standing paranoia appeared to intensify as she grew older and politically more conservative.

Romance (with both women and men) had failed her. She found it hard to demonstrate love: “Something prevents me from handing it out…. I never could learn to fuss over any man, sweet-talk him, and say ‘I love you!’ and all the rest of that stuff.” Her dreams of having children also failed, and she spent much of her life taking on the responsibility for other people’s children, raising them, doting on them, more or less adopting them; her big Harlem apartments were always overflowing with them. But they too could not provide emotional consolation. It was an increasingly empty and unhappy life.

What saved her was her religion. She was twelve when she found Jesus—“He touched me. And when you completely relinquish everything where Jesus is concerned, He takes over, a wave of something will come over you and, oh boy, you can’t describe it, but you sense it, you feel it”—and throughout her life religion buoyed her, even if she couldn’t live by its codes. Then, in 1957, she began listening to Billy Graham on the radio, and was thrilled by his uplifting evangelical message. When his Crusade came to Madison Square Garden, she attended—and then joined, at first singing anonymously in his choir, soon becoming more deeply, and publicly, involved. “Billy Graham is one of God’s disciples,” she told the press. “He and I speak the same language. You see, I’m hipped with God.” She began singing her signature song, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” on his weekly television broadcasts. And when the months-long Crusade left New York, Waters went back to her California home and continued working with and for Graham for more than fifteen years. It was a mutually beneficial experience for them both.

Through Graham and his sympathetic wife, Ruth, she got to know the Nixons. “To her,” Bogle tells us, “Nixon was her ‘Dickie Boy.'” (Pat Nixon was her “Patty Girl.”) She sang for them at a White House morning prayer service, and soon was back at the White House for their daughter Tricia’s wedding.

There were other satisfying moments—a new and impressive recording of religious songs; a second autobiography; sporadic TV and movie appearances, including a meretricious version of The Sound and the Fury; an Ethel Waters day at the World’s Fair; a gala testimonial event mounted by Graham for her, with nine hundred guests ranging from Tricia Nixon Cox to Bob Hope. (There was a tricky exchange when Graham told the audience, “She made it in show business when it was difficult for a Black actress to make it.” “Please, not the word ‘Black,’ Waters responded. “I’m a Negress and proud of it.” Even so, she would soon be honored with an award from the NAACP.)

During these years, important people from her earlier life were dying—Van Vechten, Earl Dancer, and, most important, her mother, whose approval and affection she always believed she had been denied, whom she had never ceased loving and supporting financially, and who had, toward the end, acknowledged at last that Ethel had been a good girl, a good daughter. And that she was pretty. “And that was it,” Waters wrote in the final paragraphs of His Eye Is on the Sparrow. “That was the acceptance and the fulfillment I’d been dreaming of winning all my life.”

As her health deteriorated, Waters was in hospitals, nursing homes, and eventually living with people she had casually met along the way and who devoted themselves to caring for her. By 1977, when she died at eighty, her body was shutting down—blood clots, kidney failure, terrible pain. Her final words were “Merciful Father—precious Jesus.” But let’s not forget that not so many years earlier, about to appear on Hollywood Palace with Diana Ross and the Supremes, she instructed her companion, “Bring me my jewelry…I’ll show them bitches.”