Ethel Waters (Oct.31,1896(1900?) - Sept.1,1977) was an American blues and jazz vocalist and actress. She frequently performed jazz, big band, rock and roll and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, although she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. She was the second African American ever nominated for an Academy Award.
Waters was very talented and had many achievements. After her start in Baltimore, she toured on the black vaudeville circuit. As she described it later, "I used to work from nine until unconscious." Despite her early success, Waters fell on hard times and joined a carnival which traveled in freight cars to Chicago, Illinois. She enjoyed her time with the carnival, and recalled, "The roustabouts and the concessionaires were the kind of people I'd grown up with, rough, tough, full of larceny towards strangers, but sentimental, and loyal to their friends and co-workers." She did not last long with them, though, and soon headed south to Atlanta, Georgia. There, she worked in the same club with Bessie Smith. Smith demanded that she not compete in singing the blues opposite her, and Waters conceded to the older woman and instead sang ballads and popular songs and danced. Though perhaps best known for her blues singing today, Waters was to go on to star in musicals, plays and TV and return to the blues only periodically.
She fell in love with a drug addict in this early period, but their stormy relationship ended with World War I. She moved to Harlem and became part of the Harlem Renaissance around 1919.
Waters obtained her first job at Edmond's Cellar, a club that had a black patronage. She specialized in popular ballads, and became an actress in a blackface comedy called Hello 1919. Her biographer, Rosetta Reitz, points out that by the time Waters returned to Harlem in 1921, women blues singers were among the most powerful entertainers in the country. In 1921 Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record (recording for the tiny Cardinal Records label). She later joined Black Swan Records, where Fletcher Henderson was her accompanist. Waters later commented that Henderson tended to perform in a more classical style than she would prefer, often lacking "the damn-it-to-hell bass". According to Waters, she influenced Henderson to practice in a "real jazz" style. She first recorded for Columbia Records in 1925; this recording was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. Soon after, Waters started working with Pearl Wright, and together they toured in the South. In 1924 Waters played at the Plantation Club on Broadway. She also toured with the Black Swan Dance Masters. With Earl Dancer, she joined what was called the "white time" Keith Circuit. They received rave reviews in Chicago, and earned the unheard-of salary of US$1,250 in 1928. In 1929, Harry Akst helped Wright and Waters compose a version of "Am I Blue?", her signature tune.
During the 1920s, Waters performed and/or was recorded with the ensembles of Will Marion Cook and Lovie Austin. As her career continued, she evolved toward being a blues and Broadway singer, performing with artists such as Duke Ellington.