Known as "Sweet Mama Stringbean" for her slender figure,
Ethel Waters could sing the blues beyond compare. Her soft, refined
voice, theatrical style, and signature shimmy captivated black and
white audiences alike.
Waters grew up in the chaotic misery of a Philadelphia slum. "No
one raised me," she recalled. "I just ran wild." Waters
gladly put it all behind her to tour on the vaudeville circuit. She
ended up in New York City, performing on the stages of both the Lincoln
and Lafayette Theatres.
In 1919 she became one of the first black artists hired by Black
Swan Records. The commercial success of two 1921 recordings—"Down
Home Blues" and "Oh, Daddy"—landed Waters a touring
gig with Fletcher Henderson and the Black Swan Troubadours.
Her recording career was heating up, but Waters refused to let her
theater work cool down. In 1927 she made her Broadway debut in Africana.
Her rendition of Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" at the
Cotton Club in 1933 (he had written the song expressly for her) moved
composer Irving Berlin to cast Waters in the musical comedy As
Thousands Cheer. When the show toured the South, she snared top
billing alongside her white cast members—a first for any black
Waters' stage credits eventually surpassed those she had notched
as a singer. Her numerous Broadway hits included At Home Abroad
(1936), Mamba's Daughters (1939), Cabin in the Sky
(1940), and Member of the Wedding (1950).
Waters effected a mid-career makeover as a dramatic screen actress,
appearing in nine feature films. In 1949, her turn as Granny in Pinky
earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.