“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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.