Vocalist and actress Ethel Waters (1896-1977) was a key figure in the development of African American culture between the two world wars. She broke barrier after barrier, becoming:
(1). the first black woman heard on the radio.
(2). the first black singer to perform on television.
(3). the first African American to perform in an integrated cast on Broadway.
(4). the first black woman to perform in a lead dramatic role on Broadway.
As a singer Waters introduced over 50 songs that became hits, including standards of the magnitude of "St. Louis Blues" and "Stormy Weather." Her jazzy yet controlled vocal style influenced a generation of vocalists, black and white, and her career, encompassing stage, song, and screen, flowered several times in comebacks after tumbling to low points. Today Waters is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath with other major African American performers of the1920s and 1930s. While the careers of jazz artists like Louis Armstrong or even her blues singing contemporary Bessie Smith are exhaustively dissected by historians, Waters is remembered chiefly by listeners and performers with a special interest in the early years of the American popular song industry. Only a few reissues of her recordings have been made available on compact discs and online music services. There are several reasons for this disparity, all of which can be reduced to the idea that Waters and her career could not easily be mythologized. Her field was pop, not the jazz or blues that has typically fascinated investigators of the American musical past, although she was touched creatively by both those genres. She lived and worked for decades, enduring the tragic death of Billie Holiday, a singer with a background similar to her own. And late in life she turned to gospel music, appearing with prominent conservative figures in an era when African American militancy was on the rise. "You don't become a jazz legend by growing old, playing grandmothers, and palling around with Billy Graham and Richard Nixon," noted singer Susannah McCorkle in an essay on Waters that appeared in American Heritage Magazine.
Yet Waters overcame a childhood as bitterly hard as Armstrong's or Holiday's. She was conceived when her mother, 12 years old at the time, was raped at knifepoint. Born in Chester, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1896 and growing up in and around nearby Philadelphia, she was raised by a grandmother and two alcoholic aunts, who abused her physically. She never lived in the same place for more than 15 months. She had neither a bed nor a bathtub and had vivid memories of opening closet doors only to come face to face with a rat on numerous occasions. She said of her difficult childhood, "I never was a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family." By the time she was seven, Waters was serving as lookout for prostitutes and pimps in what she called Philadelphia's "Bloody Eighth Ward." "I played with the thieves' children and the sporting women's trick babies," Waters recalled in her autobiography, His Eye Is On the Sparrow." It was they who taught me how to steal." Despite this unpromising start, Waters demonstrated early the love of language that so distinguishes her work. Some bright spots came in a Catholic school she began attending when she was nine; where nuns noticed her gifts for speaking and mimicry and her powerful memory (Waters called it "elephantine"). Waters married an older man named Merritt Purnsley in 1910. The marriage was abusive and ended after less than a year; she later married and divorced twice more, never had children, and rarely spoke of her marriages. As a teenager, Waters was often hired out by her grandmother as a housecleaner or chambermaid jobs that seem dismal now, but for Waters seemed to open up a whole new world. She dreamed of being hired by a wealthy woman who would take her on travels around the world, and she would stand in front of mirrors in the houses she cleaned and do song-and-dance routines. Waters had already impressed Philadelphia churchgoers as a singer as far back as age five. A nondrinker and nonsmoker, Waters dealt with the pressures of live theater by eating. Her weight ballooned to more than 300 pounds, and roles dried up. Nearly losing her California home, Waters was forced to appear wherever she could in minor nightclubs. But things turned around with her appearances as a grandmother in Pinky(1949), an Elia Kazan-directed film that brought her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. For much of the 1950s Waters steadily pulled in audiences as the star of her own one-woman show. But, living alone in an apartment in New York City, she felt isolated and unfulfilled. In 1957, Waters attended a revival held at Madison Square Garden as part of the Billy Graham Crusade. She joined the Graham choir at first, then began to lend her gifts as a gospel soloist to Graham. After Waters announced that she had become a born-again Christian in 1957, her weight dropped from 380 to 160 pounds. Through Graham she met and became friends with Richard Nixon and his family, and she espoused politically conservative positions. Waters performed at the White House in 1971, returning the following year as a guest at the wedding of presidential daughter Tricia Nixon. She was also honored by Graham at a 1972 testimonial dinner attended by a galaxy of Hollywood stars. Her final appearance came at a Billy Graham Crusade event held in San Diego in August of 1976. She suffered from cataracts, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, and cancer, and finally died on September 1, 1977 at the home of future biographer Paul DeKorte. "Because of her trailblazing style, Waters deserves to be as widely listened to and loved as the jazz icons Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday," McCorkle noted in 1994, and Waters was honored on a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp that year. But a decade later historians were still just beginning to appreciate her accomplishments.