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April 07, 2005

Zenga Longmore on Ethel Waters - The Forgotten Jazz Songstress

Posted by Zenga Longmore

My first encounter with the unique Ethel Waters shall shine forever in my memory. The year was 1975 and I was listening to a collection of old 1930s gramophone records. All of a sudden Ethel's opening bars of Frankie and Johnny thrilled the air:

Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts.
Bo-o-oy, how they could love.
I was riveted by the voice - by the plot. Frankie catches Johnny "loving up old Nelly Bligh". Maddened with rage, she dashes to a pawn shop from which she emerges hiding a gun underneath her long red kimono. After Frankie shoots Johnny, the final verse transforms into a slow dirge, delivered in chillingly bell-like tones:
The day Frankie mounted the scaffold,
She was just as calm as any gal could be.
And raising her eyes to heaven
She cried "Lo-o-ord! I'm coming to thee.
I'm sorry I nailed my man
Who done me wrong".
Nearly seventy years later, Ethel retains the power to generate tears. Her talents defy categorization. Blues, jazz, gospel, ballads, show tunes and even Hebraic chants were all a part of this extraordinary woman's repertoire. Her voice was indescribably rich with a remarkable range of over four octaves.

One of the most disturbing mysteries of modern times is why the world has forgotten her. Why, one wonders, do certain entertainers 'endure' and others, who were equally famous in their time and just as talented, become obsolete?

Perhaps the critics are to blame. George Melly, who should known have better, once claimed that Bessie Smith was the world's finest blues singer, but that Ethel Waters sounded too "white". Mr Melly and his boorish gang of jazz buffs should realise that it is the white singers who sounded like Ethel, not the other way round. Sophie Tucker, billed as "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas" even paid La Waters for private performances so she could study Ethel's style of delivery. Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra both admitted to having been influenced by Ethel.

Her career encapsulated the "American Dream", in other words she was born into a life of unimaginable poverty from which she managed to escape. I have often thought it bizarre that a country as wealthy as America should pride itself on a dream which involves its citizens having to suffer such crippling hardship in the first place. In her gloriously frank autobiography, His Eye is on The Sparrow (1950) she recounts that she was born in Chester, Philadelphia in 1900 to a mother who was raped at knife-point at the age of 12. Ethel was a constant reminder of the most horrific day of her mother's life, and as a result was despised and neglected as a child. From the age of five she ran errands for prostitutes and drug dealers. When she was 13, her mother forced her to marry a boy she hated. The violent marriage lasted nine months.

As a young girl, her highest ambition was to be a maid for a white mistress. In 1917, she was tempted to turn down the offer of her first professional job as singer in the Lincoln Theatre, Baltimore, because it conflicted with her somewhat naive career plan. However, when she discovered she was able earn up to ten dollars a week just for "moaning the blues", she embraced a show business career with gusto. Very soon she became hugely popular with audiences who labelled the tall skinny Ethel "Sweet Mama Stringbean". When young, she was staggeringly beautiful with huge, luminous doe eyes gazing from a heart shaped face.

During the 1920s Ethel was the world's highest paid black female star. Her witty, slyly suggestive songs such as I'm Gonna Shake that Tree Until the Nuts Come Down and Organ Grinder enthralled audiences in clubs and theatres throughout America. When the depression struck the rest of the country, Waters was one of the few "race" artistes to continue to make a good living. Blues was now considered old fashioned, and the Classic Blues singers of the roaring twenties were forced to accept menial jobs - at one stage, poor Bessie Smith was discovered selling popcorn in a cinema kiosk. However, the versatile Ethel effortlessly adapted to modern "swing music" and recorded countless hits with the big band artists of her day. During the 1940s she worked successfully in films, outshining the syrupy Lena Horne in the musical Cabin in the Sky.

She was a difficult person to work with. Although abstemious and deeply religious, her ungovernable tantrums were constantly ready to explode. As she admitted in her autobiography:

I had two diamond rings on my hand that I wore for decoration and also, in emergencies, for both offensive and defensive work.
Everyone who met her had hair-raising anecdotes to report of her aggressive temper. I can fully understand her bitterness. Her life was fraught with brutal prejudice and humiliation. When touring the South, her colour excluded her from "White Only" hotels so she was often required to rent rooms in brothels. She once described how two white men spat at her as she almost bled to death after a car accident. She had as much right as anyone else to wallow in existential angst.

By the 1950s, religious fervour led Ethel to turn her back on ungodly jazz syncopations and concentrate solely on spiritual music. The gospel songs she recorded are so full of pathos they cause the listener's blood to flow in the opposite direction. A mild stroke forced her into semi-retirement during the 1960s. Frail but undaunted, she toured with Billy Graham's evangelical company until two years before her death in 1977. I sometimes muse upon how the congregation would have reacted had they been aware that the grey haired old lady warbling feebly along with Billy Graham's choir was once one of America's most brilliant stars.

If you, dear internet reader, have never heard of Ethel Waters, I am bitterly ashamed of you. However, you can atone for your ignorance by clicking onto the Amazon website, and ordering her recordings without further delay.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.


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I bought a CD of her in Paris a fortnight ago. I've never seen one on sale in the UK.

Posted by: dearieme at April 8, 2005 03:06 PM
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A great Lady. I was searching for information on her because I had read her autobiography some years ago and only remembered the turmoil she suffered through out her life. Thanks you for reminding me of her great accomplishments which I know brought her much joy in this life.
God is faithful!

Posted by: Evelyn Penn at April 19, 2005 05:31 PM
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