Dateline October 31, 1896 – The incomparable Ethel Waters is born in Chester, Pennsylvania, the result of a rape of her mother, who was reportedly only 13 years old at the time. Waters was raised in extreme poverty and said of her own childhood, “I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.” Waters was married at the age of 13 to an abusive man, whom she soon left. For a time she worked as a maid, toiling in a Philadelphia hotel for $4.75 a week. On her 17th birthday she was cajoled into singing two songs at a party. From that ad hoc performance she was offered a job to sing professionally in Baltimore.
It still wasn’t easy. She toured the Vaudeville circuit for a time. She joined a carnival, traveling by freight cars. Of her experience working carnivals she said, “The roustabouts and the concessionaires were the kind of people I’d grown up with, rough, tough, full of larceny towards strangers, but sentimental and loyal to their friends and co-workers.” After a stint in Chicago, she found herself singing at the same Atlanta club as Bessie Smith, who demanded that Ethel Waters not compete with her by singing the Blues. Waters complied and sang only ballads and popular songs instead. This is ironic because today Waters is best known for singing the Blues. In 1919 she moved to Harlem just in time for the Harlem Renaissance, where she eventually found her fame.
In 1933 she was one of the stars of “As Thousands Cheer” the first Broadway show to give a Black person equal billing with a White cast. It was a topical revue with a book by Moss Hart and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. “As Thousands Cheer” was a hit, running for 400 performances during the height of the depression. Each scene was based loosely on a news story or headline of the day. Aside from introducing “Heatwave” in the show, a song that’s become a classic, Irving Berlin wrote the song “Suppertime” specifically for Ethel Waters. She sang it to the ripped-from-a–newspaper headline “UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB.” The “negro” was not unknown to Ethel Waters’ character. It was her husband and the song became a show-stopper which had audiences crying openly because of the intensity of Waters’ performance.
Sadly we don’t have that performance, but 36 years later Ethel Waters recreated the song for an appearance on the Hollywood Palace hosted by Diana Ross and the Supremes. In 1969 it was probably considered too incendiary to show the original staging, but on Broadway Waters sang this song on an almost empty stage with a silhouette on the bare back wall of a lynched man. In this single song Ethel Waters was able to sum up the Black experiemce in ‘Merka. If your eyes are not tearing up after this AMAZING performance, check your heart. You might not have one.
Ethel Waters died in 1977 at the age of 80. Luckily we have many records and movie performances to remember her by. There are so many outstanding performances, it was hard to narrow it down to just these. ENJOY!
With a very young Sammy David, Jr. in the movie “Rufus Jones For President”