Ethel Waters, singer and actress, popular during the Harlem Renaissance Era, won best supporting actress for her role in the 1949 movie 'Pinky' and had numerous hit songs including "Down Home Music," "Oh, Daddy," and others. She wrote two autobiographies.
Born in Pennsylvania October 31, 1896, her childhood was migratory and difficult. She used her exposure to various cultures and situations to her advantage in her songs. Her singing career started in 1913 when she was persuaded to sing two songs during a Halloween party at a nightclub after which she was offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore. The $10 per week was better than the $4.75 per week she was earning as a Philadelphia hotel maid.
Soon she was touring on the Black vaudeville circuit, which wasn't lucrative, so she began touring with a carnival. After a short time, she realized the carnival was also non-lucrative, so moved to Atlanta and began working in a nightclub where Bessie Smith was working. Bessie Smith demanded Waters avoid singing the blues, so Waters sang ballads and popular songs and danced.
In 1919, she moved to Harlem and became a celebrity performer in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920's. Her first job was at Edmond's Cellar where she sang popular ballads. The blackface comedy, Hello 1919, was her first acting job.
In 1921, she became the fifth African American woman to make a record on the Cardinal Record label. From 1921 through 1923, she recorded under the Black Swan Records label and was with Paramount until 1924.
In 1924, she played at the Plantation Club on Broadway and toured with the Black Swan Dance Masters. During this time, she performed to a White audience-based vaudeville circuit combined with screenings of silent movies.
In 1925, she recorded under the Columbia Records label and achieved a hit with her voicing of "Dinah," which was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. While with Columbia Records, she introduced other popular songs including "Heebie Jeebies," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Someday, Sweetheart," "Am I Blue?," and "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue." In 1928, her salary was $1,250. In 1929, she helped compose "Am I Blue?" which became her signature song. She remained with Columbia until 1931, signed with the Brunswick label, but briefly returned to Columbia in 1933. Other labels included Decca, Liberty Music Shops and Bluebird.
In 1933, she made a satirical all-Black film, "Rufus Jones for President" and later starred at the Cotton Club where she sang "Stormy Weather." She also took a role in the Broadway musical "As Thousands Cheer" where she was the first African American woman in an otherwise White show. During this time, she starred in a national radio program and continued to work in nightclubs. She was the highest paid performer on Broadway.
Other films included Vincente Minnelli's "Cabin in the Sky" (1942) and "Stage Door Canteen" (1943) with Count Basie. In 1949, she was nominated Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance in "Pinky." In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her performance in the play "The Member of the Wedding." She reprieved her role in the movie version. In 1950, she starred in the television series, "Beulah," but quit because she felt the scripts portrayed African Americans in a demeaning, stereotypical image. Due to declining health, she then worked only sporadically.
Other awards and honors include:
Grammy Hall of Fame for "Am I Blue?," "Stormy Weather," and "Dinah:" Library of Congress honors for her 1933 recording of "Stormy Weather;" Christian Hall of Fame awardee; 1994 Commemorative U.S. Postage Stamp honoree; Gospel Music Hall of Fame awardee; Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Series Emmy Awards nominee for Route 66; and Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominee for "Pinky."
Films include: "On with the Show!," "Rufus Jones for President," "Bubbling Over," "Gift of Gab," "Tales of Manhattan," "Cairo," "Cabin in the Sky," "Stage Door Canteen," "Pinky," "The Member of the Wedding," "Carib Gold," "The Heart Is a Rebel," and her last film, "The Sound and the Fury" (1959).
In 1951, her autobiography, "His Eye is on the Sparrow" was published (it was later adapted for a stage production). She wrote a second autobiography, "To Me, It's Wonderful." She performed with many recognizable talents including Duke Ellington, Julie Harris and Count Basie. Later, she toured with the Rev. Billy Graham. She was the great aunt of singer/dancer Crystal Waters. While her career included singing jazz, big band, rock and roll and pop music, dancing, stage, musicals, film and television with starring roles, she preferred to sing the blues and jazz whenever the opportunity arose; you can hear in her voice, she loved the Blues and her spirit prevailed.
Compiled from Internet biographical sources.