In spite of the racism of American showbusiness, the singer and actor achieved a number of firsts

Books, arts and culture
Prospero

BY 1917 THE lanky vaudeville artiste from the wrong side of the tracks in Philadelphia had already shown her spirit and mettle. From the song’s composer, W.C. Handy, she had won permission to sing his hit “St. Louis Blues”—the first woman to do so. The 21-year-old daughter of a teenage maid who had been raped, she had a weekly deal to perform around the “chitlin circuit” of African-American music halls. But when Ethel Waters, then billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean”, found out that her crooked managers pocketed $25 for her act in Baltimore but only passed on $10, she upped and left. Mama Stringbean took no nonsense.

A century ago, in 1921, Waters cut her first record. “Down Home Blues” appeared on the Black Swan label, named after the sobriquet of Elizabeth Greenfield, a 19th-century slave-born soprano who had sung for Queen Victoria. It wasn’t quite the first recorded blues: Mamie Smith had released “Crazy Blues” in 1920. Waters’s runaway success, though, showed that African-American record-buyers, and curious whites, might sustain careers in entertainment for black vocalists who aimed to rise beyond the demeaning confines of minstrelsy and vaudeville.

By the mid-1920s Waters—with her commanding presence, polished tone and cut-glass diction—had moved into classy clubs in New York. This child of poverty, violence and exploitation, “born too old and too tall”, crossed racial barriers and rose fast. Sensual and sophisticated at once, she avoided the sleazy raunch of blues “moaners and shouters”. Waters’s biographer, Donald Bogle, calls her signature style “both cool and hot”. Her lifelong friend, the writer Carl Van Vechten, wrote that she “refines even her obscenities”. Another admirer, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston, compared time spent with the protean Waters to “watching an open fire—the colour and shape of her personality is never the same twice”. From Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra, younger stars learned their craft from her.

Stories of female blues and jazz singers often trace a grim arc towards tragedy. Edward Albee’s play “The Death of Bessie Smith” (1959) follows this familiar course. In 2020 both James Erskine’s documentary “Billie” (about Billie Holiday), and George Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, highlighted the racism, abuse and thievery that black artists, especially women, routinely faced. As did Waters. She later admitted to Elia Kazan, a film director, that her upbringing had alienated her from all white people: “I don’t trust any of you.”

Yet Waters bucked the stereotypes. She refused to live fast and die young. Acclaim at Harlem’s Cotton Club led to Broadway stardom—and record-breaking earnings—in the 1930s. Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler composed “Stormy Weather” for her. No one ever sang it better. More remarkably, Irving Berlin wrote “Supper Time” with Waters in mind: a song about a woman bereaved by a lynching that predates Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

Waters became the first African-American singer to host her own radio show, to appear on television (in 1939), and to star in a TV drama series (in 1950). In Hollywood, she helped the director Vincente Minnelli to his breakthrough with a show-stealing role in the all-black musical “Cabin in the Sky”. As an actor, she gained an Oscar nomination for Kazan’s “Pinky” in 1949 and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance in the play of Carson McCullers’s novel “The Member of the Wedding”. In her later years (she died in 1977) the once-scandalous star, who had lovers of both sexes, shone as a pious stalwart of Billy Graham’s evangelical “crusades”, singing her trademark number “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.

So did the tall, fierce diva who broke out of segregated vaudeville a hundred years ago also break the mould of showbiz victimhood? Not quite. Although a roll call of African-American “firsts”, her career was also a chronicle of stalled progress and thwarted hope. By 1939 she had confirmed her dramatic skills with a heart-wrenching role—written especially for her—in DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s play “Mamba’s Daughters”. She took 17 curtain calls. Broadway, however, still reinforced stock roles. As for Hollywood, it shut black women characters in the kitchen and kept them there. Maids, mammies and matriarchs, certainly; heroines who defy their fate, never.

By the late 1940s, colleagues wanted to see her star as Euripides’s Medea or in a planned African-American version of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts”. But when she played the lead in the TV series “Beulah”, it was as another cheerful, problem-fixing maid. In 1952, the studio cut Waters’s most powerful scenes from Fred Zinnemann’s film of “The Member of the Wedding”.

Early hardship had tempered and toughened her. As Mr Bogle puts it in his biography, “she had to claim her turf” as best she could. Lena Horne, a singer with whom she clashed on “Cabin in the Sky”, said that Waters “had a very hard time coming up, and that leaves a blot on you”. As Waters’s acting matured, the structural racism of American society and showbiz continued to slam doors on her talent. For Waters, the storms never really stopped. But she helped make better weather for her successors.

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