Black History Month Note 1: Let’s Talk About Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters, in a 1945 photo believed to have been taken in New York City. (William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress Music Division)





“Sometimes I think this big size of mine has prevented me from becoming a human being. Nobody’s protective instincts ever seemed to be aroused by a huge girl. I was so eager to feel sheltered and have people like me. I was hungry for a kind word. When it didn’t come I cried inwardly, but, being myself, I also began to build up my defenses.” (Waters, 64)


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So actress/singer Ethel Waters writes about her girl self in her 1951 autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow. She grew up in a poor and difficult household, with a wayward mother who did not like her and farmed out her parental responsibilities on many occasions to Waters’s grandmother, drunken, lonely aunts, and a half-sister she disliked because of her light skin, all in neighborhoods in Chester and Philadelphia that were known for hustlers, prostitutes, and foul-mouthed children. (Waters developed a fondness for the underground world of sex workers and hustlers, people who often looked out for her. According to her autobiography, she was, amazingly, not raped as a child. Not for lack of those willing to try! But she was married at thirteen. [Waters, 58])

Waters did not initially have any grand ambitions for herself, certainly not to be in show business. Her first forays into the world of formal employment were hotel and kitchen work, typical for a lower-class Black woman with a spotty education. (She finished the sixth grade.) She found a sense of self-worth in this work: “I guess the feeling of being unwanted and belonging to nobody made me eager to give satisfaction and win the respect of my employers.” (Waters, 64) “I couldn’t understand the attitude of the other employees toward me,” she writes, as they disliked her eager-beaver ways and insistence on giving her all to her job. “The work I was doing meant my food. I couldn’t see any reason to shirk. I was happy to be working in a nice place, run by nice people.” (65) I remember one of the first working-class jobs I had as a teenager, some of the older workers told me not to work so hard. “You not gonna get anywhere working hard for the man and showing us up,” they grumbled. I thought to myself, that may be true but I will definitely get nowhere being half-asses with an attitude like you guys are except winding up in a dead-end job bitching about people who do not want to wind up the same way. I have always appreciated Waters’s desire to do even a lowly job well. It has always reminded me of my mother. If nothing else, working hard made a work day go faster.

Waters wanted at first to become “the lady’s maid and companion of some wealthy woman who was traveling around the world and would take me with her.” (Waters, 66) She wound up traveling abroad herself but with her own maid, once she made it as a blues and pop singer, a Broadway performer, and a film and stage actress. But when she was being praised by the management of the Horn and Hardart’s Automat in Philadelphia for being “a hard and willing worker,” (Waters, 108) she asked that the job be kept open for her in case the show biz thing she was attempting did not work out.

I posted on Facebook some ten days ago about the upcoming Jazz St. Louis Book Club discussion of His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which will occur on Tuesday, February 7. One of the responses asked me about Ethel Waters’s poor treatment of a young Billie Holiday, whom she would not permit to sing on the same bill. Waters was also famous for saying that Holiday sang as if her shoes were too tight, which is funny in a perverse way. Donald Bogle describes this incident in his massive biography of Waters, Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters (2011, Bogle 282-283), a significant portion of which is taken from Holiday’s 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. Waters does not mention Holiday at all in His Eye Is on the Sparrow.

As Bogle points out, Waters was given the same treatment by the great Bessie Smith that she gave Holiday. Waters relates her run-in with Smith in His Eye Is on the Sparrow. (Waters, 91-92) Let us call this a kind of rite of passage in show biz where the young pretender must make her bones and give respect to the Queen of the realm at the moment. But if Waters was jealous of Holiday or felt threatened by her, Holiday returned the favor by never mentioning Waters as an influence, although, as Bogle suggests, it is clear that she was. (Bogle, 283) Waters, along with Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, was one of the most influential singers of the 1920s. Before being too harsh on Waters, it should be remembered that one of the most imperial singers of the twentieth century was Aretha Franklin. No one sang on a bill with her without clearing everything he or she was going to sing with the Queen of Soul first. After that, you still had to hope she would let you sing.

Waters had no love for another rival, singer/actress Lena Horne, with whom she worked in the 1943 Vincente Minelli film, Cabin in the Sky. Waters writes, “But all through that picture there was so much snarling and scrapping that I don’t know how in the world Cabin in the Sky ever stayed up there. I won all my battles on that picture.” (Waters, 258) As Bogle relates, “Cabin in the Sky would end up being a difficult film for Waters—and for Horne.” (Bogle, 374) When Horne starred in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, Waters dismissed her as offering “only primitive sex appeal.” But of course, that is exactly what Waters offered in the early days of her singing career as Sweet Mama Stringbean doing the shimmy and shaking her hips. Or maybe Waters thought she was offering sophisticated sex appeal. In any case, Waters was upset that Horne now became associated with the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler song “Stormy Weather,” which Waters introduced to the public at the Cotton Club ten years earlier in 1933.

If many Black entertainers of an early time come across as hell on wheels, imperial, spiteful, backbiting, and often disdainful of newcomers, it must be remembered that in this regard they differed hardly at all from their White counterparts. If a career in pop culture was challenging and cut-throat for Whites, it was particularly tough on Black asses, to borrow an expression, with rampant segregation, racist stereotypes to overcome or compromise with, lower pay, and severely limited opportunities. Only the strong survived and the impression that Waters gives is that she was a strong, at times, mean woman who was not going down without a fight.


If Ethel Waters sounds like someone you would like to learn more about, join me and WU associate professor of music Paul Steinbeck on Tuesday, February 7 at Jazz at the Bistro, 3536 Washington Avenue, in midtown St. Louis for a discussion of His Eye Is on the Sparrow. If you have not read the book, come anyway! If you have the time, check out one of Waters’s movies like Cabin in the Sky (1943), or Pinky (1949), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, or The Member of the Wedding (1952). Or you might want to see her in Carib Gold, (1956) a minor film, but which introduced Cicely Tyson. It is worth seeing the two of them—the old head and the young girl—work a scene together.