In vaudeville, Broadway, and beyond, a natural-born star
The preeminent historian of black entertainment, Donald Bogle first took on black diva-dom in his acclaimed biography of Dorothy Dandridge. He has an even richer subject this time. Ethel Waters was only the second African-American to be nominated for an Oscar (for her role in the mid-century miscegenation melodrama “Pinky’’), an enduring star of Broadway and vaudeville, and the first great black recording artist. Known for her regal presence, brilliantly clear diction, and genuine zeal for entertaining, Waters is less well-known now than many of her successors. Yet as Bogle reminds us, she was a bridge between blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and the next generation, from Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, whose careers would not have been possible without hers.
Born in 1896 near Philadelphia, Waters grew up in a chaotic, peripatetic family. Her mother, Louise, who had been raped and was only 13 when she gave birth to Ethel, was “slow-thinking,’’ according to her daughter, who called her Momweeze. The woman she called Mom was her grandmother Sally Anderson. Strong-willed and quick-tempered, deeply religious yet rarely without a lover, Anderson was Ethel’s protector and role model. Despite Anderson’s devotion, Ethel was often neglected and felt unloved. “I was always too big for laps,’’ she wrote later. “My close kin didn’t even like me.’’ At 13, she was forced into marriage (dropping out of sixth grade after her mother signed the permission form); the same year, Anderson died and whatever childhood Ethel had came to an end.
The tall, skinny teenager (her first nickname in show business was “Sweet Mama Stringbean’’) soon escaped her loutish husband and used what she earned cleaning houses to buy the fanciest secondhand dresses she could. Then Waters hit Philadelphia’s black nightclubs, where she won a few “shake dance’’ contests. On her 21st birthday she entered a singing contest and was discovered by two theatrical producers.
The early 1920s black vaudeville scene was dominated by the Theatre Owners Booking Association, familiarly known as TOBA. TOBA acts toured the segregated South, where performers slept at local people’s homes and took their meals at the back doors of restaurants. Wherever they went, they performed for black audiences, a memory that Waters “would always cherish’’ for “the way they sent those enthusiastic messages of approval and adulation through their wild applause, their laughter, their screams and shouts of joy. No white audience could ever show that kind of enthusiasm.’’ The first time Waters sang for a white audience, she later wrote, she thought she was “a dead duck’’ because “no one tried to tear the house down. They merely clapped their hands.’’ Although white audiences loved her, their praise often came with predictable prejudices. One reviewer who called Waters “the most remarkable woman of her race that I have seen in the theater,’’ pointed out that she “neither moaned, groaned nor raved her ‘Georgia Blues’; she only sighed with satanic rhythm.’’
Early reviews such as this are amply chronicled in Bogle’s intensely detailed biography. At times the detail can overwhelm, as in the encyclopedic lists of the sidemen who recorded with Waters. Luckily, such attention to minutiae is balanced by the author’s grasp of the historical context and show-biz milieu in which Waters battled and flourished. Bogle is masterful in describing how the Depression affected black performers and in painting insightful brief portraits of characters from Fletcher Henderson to Carl Van Vechten to Billy Graham (with whom Waters toured, singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,’’ her favorite gospel song, toward the end of her career). Bogle thoughtfully plumbs the throughlines of race, religion, sexuality (including Waters’s affairs with men and women), and music that informed her art and life.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@ gmail.com.