Harlem Renaissance: Ethel Waters Breaking Barriers

Ethel Waters was born on October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was raised in poverty by her grandmother as well as two aunts and an uncle. When asked about her childhood, Waters once said “I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.” On her 17th birthday, she attended a costume party and sang two songs. Her performance impressed the audience so much that someone immediately offered her a job in Baltimore.


When offered the job at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore, she received $10 per week, nearly double what she was making before. Even with her success, she fell on hard times and joined a carnival of freight cars going to Chicago. Soon after, she headed to Atlanta where she worked at the same club as Bessie Smith. Smith demanded that Waters not compete with blues songs, and Waters agreed to sing ballads and popular songs.


Waters moved to Harlem in 1919, getting her first job at Edmond’s Cellar, a club that specialized in popular ballads. When she arrived in Harlem, female blues singers were becoming more and more powerful. She became the fifth black woman to make a record, originally joining Cardinal Records, but later switched to Black Swan.

At Black Swan, she was accompanied by Fletcher Henderson. Over the next two years, Waters became the highest paid black recording artist at the time. In 1924, Paramount bought Black Swan and Waters stayed for the year.

She switched to Columbia in 1925 and began working with Pearl Wright. She continued touring, joining with Earl Dancer in what was colloquially called “white time,” the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, performing for white audiences. In Chicago, they earned an unheard of $1,250. Later, in 1926, Waters recorded “I’m Coming Virginia” which was a hit partially due to her performing it on Broadway. In 1929, Waters and Wright arranged “Am I Blue?” which became a hit and later her signature song.

Film, Theater, and Television

In 1933, Waters appeared in a satirical all-Black film, “Rufus Jones for President”, featuring future star Sammy Davis Jr.. She went on to star at the Cotton Club. Later that year, she stared in the successful Broadway musical, “As Thousands Cheer”.

Waters held three jobs: in “As Thousands Cheer”, as a singer for Jack Denny & His Orchestra on a national radio program, and in nightclubs. Due to these three jobs, she became the highest-paid performer on Broadway. Even with her success she still had difficulty finding work.

Waters moved to Los Angeles in 1942 to appear in “Cairo”. That same year, she starred in “Cabin in the Sky”. In the latter, Waters sang the Academy Award nominated “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe”.

In 1939 Waters became the first African American to star in her own television show,  The Ethel Waters Show, a 15-minute variety special. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film “Pinky”.

In 1950, Waters won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance in “The Member of the Wedding”. Later that year, she became the first Black actress to star in a television series with “Beulah”.

Awards and Accomplishments

Her recording of “Stormy Weather” was listed in the National Recording Registry in 2003. She became a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (1983). In 2004, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Additionally, three of her recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame: “Dinah” (1998), “Stormy Weather” (2003), and “Am I Blue?” (2007).

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