With all that Ethel Waters has contributed to music and film, it is surprising that she is often forgotten. She was a talented blues singer whose unique style distinguished her from other blues singers and she was a jazz vocalist as well. Her talent extended beyond singing, when she became a dramatic actress who earned award nominations for her performances. What was most remarkable about Waters’ performances was how she reconstructed the mammy character into one that challenged stereotypes. Career as a Singer Ethel Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1896.
She had a hard life in which she faced rejection from her mother and poverty. Waters’ love of singing began as a child when she sang in church choirs but her childhood was cut short when at thirteen she married an abusive man, dropped out of sixth grade, and was divorced a year later. Shortly thereafter, she began working as a maid until two vaudeville producers discovered her while she was singing in a talent contest in 1917. She toured with vaudeville shows, and was billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” because of her height and thinness. In 1919, she left the vaudeville circuit and performed in Harlem nightclubs.
Two years later she became one of the first black singers to cut a record on the Black Swan Record label with her release of “Down Home Blues” and “Oh, Daddy”. The record was a success and Waters went on tour and received great acclaim. She toured with Fletcher Henderson and the Black Swan Jazz Masters. The Chicago Defender and other newspapers gave the tour substantial notoriety. The tour increased Black Swan’s revenues, and made Waters a top performer who became known for her shimmies and soft style of singing. Waters’ success was related to her style of singing.
She could sing like other classic blues singers with plenty of passion and fire, but she had a unique approach. She was not a shouter but was able to hold the attention of the audience with her low and sweet voice. According to Jimmy McPartland, who saw her in the 1927 show Miss Calico, “We were enthralled with her. We liked Bessie Smith very much, too, but Waters had more polish, I guess you’d say. She phrased so wonderfully, the natural quality of her voice was so fine . . . ” Waters introduced a new style of the blues, one that was influenced by her grandmother who always told her “You don’t have to holler so.
God has very big ears. He can hear you even if you whisper. ” Just the opposite, her mother’s preference was more in line with the Holy Rollers and the Baptists style. Waters’ style was a combination of both these approaches. The result was one that was characterized by sophistication, refinement, moderation, only rare growls, and precise enunciation. Waters’ unique style contributed her ability to sing various styles of music. Like other classic blues singers, she could sing torches, pop songs from Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville, and musical theatre tunes.
Her style encompassed the use of wide vocal ranges and upbeat rhythmic renditions that were similar to vaudeville singing. According to Clyde Bernhardt, a jazz musician who saw her perform in 1921 at the Chestnut Auditorium in Pennsylvania, she could do the blues, a fast-tempo jazz song, and a ballad and make it sound beautiful. Because of her varied repertoire, she has also been categorized as a jazz singer. Her rhythm was closer to jazz than blues and in her later career she sang popular songs with a jazz approach. Jazz critic, Hugues Panassie wrote that Waters was a great jazz singer.
He praises her clear voice, her extensive range, the ease in which she sings, and the perfect tone of every note. He also claims that her influence on female jazz singers is “almost as great as that of Louis Armstrong. “(3) She influenced such great singers as Billie Holiday who took songs from her repertoire and recorded them as “Billie’s Blues” and Sophie Tucker who paid Waters to sing for her privately so that she could study her style. Other admirers included Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, the Boswell Sisters, and Eartha Kitt. Waters’ talent extended beyond musical style, she also had the gift of interpretation.
She set a new standard with her rendition of “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club in 1933. Waters changed the original interpretation of the ending and gave it a dramatic conclusion. Her performance was unforgettable and was the talk of New York. Her interpretive talent would not go to waste. As blues women began to fade in popularity, Waters was able use her interpretive ability to take advantage of acting opportunities on stage and screen. In the 1930s, the increased demand for all-black musicals created parts for African Americans.
Ethel Waters took advantage of this opportunity and eventually became a serious actress. With limited parts available for a big black woman, Waters most often impersonated the mammy character but she was able to alter the mammy’s traditional interpretation. Career as an Actress In the late 1920s and the 1930s, Ethel Waters was cast in a number of shows, but it was not until her part in Mamba’s Daughters, that she became a dramatic actress. Through her part, she challenged attitudes that African American women could perform only in dancing and singing roles.
In the play, she was cast as Hagar, a mother, who is unaware of who is the father of her daughter. The play opened January 3, 1939 at the Empire Theatre in New York and Waters received seventeen curtain calls. The audiences reacted favorable to the show and almost all reviews raved at Waters’ performance. The critic Arthur Pollock wrote that Waters was one of the finest actresses, white or black. Despite the limited roles available, Waters never interpreted a role as written and the 1940 Broadway play Cabin in the Sky was not an exception.
In her role as Petunia, she created another dimension to her character by making changes to the part. For instance, in one scene, she kicks up her heels to do the jitterbug and performs it in a sexy way, showing that a large black woman is not desexed. Waters’ performance refuted stereotypes and emphasized that a large black woman could be sexy. After 1942, Waters did not receive any work on stage or screen until 1949. Although she was considered one of the finest actresses, she had a temper and it became well known. Waters temper often emerged when she was jealous.
Alberta Hunter, a friend and rival recalled how Waters treated her badly when they worked together in Mamba’s Daughters. According to Hunter, “I would sing that song at the end Time’s Drawing Nigh,’ and people would come backstage asking for me, not for Ethel. She called me every name in the book and wanted to hit me. “(1) The outburst that was most well known, was her explosion on the set of Cabin in the Sky. When Lena Horne twisted her ankle, Waters became enraged and ranted and raved at the attention given to Horne. This became the main incident that contributed her being blackballed.
After years of struggling financially, in 1949 she returned to acting in the movie Pinky. She was cast as Granny, a black domestic. Her character was strong, concerned about humanity, devoted to truth and loyalty, and displayed anger. Unlike other mammy characters, she was not emotionally one-sided. According to Donald Bogle, her performance was most notable because she was able to lift “her character from the pages of the script and transformed Granny into a heroic figure. she made the archetypal strong black woman a figure that transcended the stereotype of her role.
Her performance spelled the death of the one-sided mammy figure. “(2) Her hard work finally paid off and in 1949, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Pinky. It was the first nomination of a black actress since Hattie McDaniel won the 1939 Best Supporting Oscar for Gone with the Wind. Waters also transcended the old-type mammy character in The Member of the Wedding. She was cast as Berenice Sadie Brown the black cook, housekeeper, and nurturer of two young white children. The play opened at the Empire Theatre on January 5, 1950 and she received great reviews.
In the film version of the Member of the Wedding, her performance was also notable because she affected her audience emotionally. Waters broke barriers that limited African American actors. At the time, old black actors were not monolithic figures and did not affect their viewers’ lives dramatically. However, Ethel Waters affected the imagination of the mass audience by bringing a new style and substance to the mammy character. Her performance earned her the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best actress and an Academy Award nomination.
Waters’ ability to transform roles into characters with humanity, warmth and conviction contributed to the extinction of the old-style mammy character. She discredited old characterizations and created complex African American women. However, the Civil Rights movement swept through the country in the 1950s and 1960s, and Waters’ mammy roles were not viewed as a reflection of emerging black pride. Protest movements liberated black women from white kitchens and they were able to gain access to other jobs that had not been available to them. In 1968, the television series Julia presented a new image of black women.
The character Julia was a registered nurse in a white pediatrician’s office and although she nurtured white children, her children came first. Julia represented the move away from white kitchens. As society began to change, Waters’ roles were frequently perceived as one-dimensional mammies. However, at the time there were not many other characters for African American actresses. With limited opportunities, Ethel Waters did what she could to challenge the mammy stereotype. Unfortunately, today Waters is often overlooked and underrated as an actress even though she brought real human perceptions to her characters.