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...
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