Photos with Ethel Waters
BiographyChester, Pennsylvania, USA
The child of a teenage rape victim, Ethel Waters grew up in the slums of Philadelphia and neighboring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. "No one raised me, " she recollected, "I just ran wild." She excelled not only at looking after herself, but also at singing and dancing; she began performing at church functions, and as a teenager was locally renowned for her "hip shimmy shake". Read more... "St. Louis Blues", which Waters performed in a softer and subtler style than her rivals, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Beginning with her appearances in Harlem nightclubs in the late 1920s, then on the lucrative "white time" vaudeville circuit, she became one of America's most celebrated and highest-paid entertainers. At the Cotton Club, she introduced "Stormy Weather", composed for her by Harold Arlen: she wrote of her performance, "I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted". Impressed by this performance, Irving Berlin wrote "Supper Time", a song about a lyncing, for Waters to perform in a Broadway revue. She later became the first African-American star of a national radio show. In middle age, first on Broadway and then in the movies, she successfully recast herself as a dramatic actress. Devoutly religious but famously difficult to get along with, Waters found few roles worthy of her talents in her later years.