Ethel Waters: The Sparrow that Soared

Ethel Waters as an older woman at the Billy Graham crusades. BROWNED/AP Photo Ethel Waters as an older woman at the Billy Graham crusades. BROWNELL/AP Photo
Ethel Waters came into this world unwanted and unloved. Of her early childhood, Ethel said, “No one raised me; I just ran wild.  I never was a child.  I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.” Her young mother had been raped at knife point by a family acquaintance. At the age of 13, Louise Anderson gave birth to baby Ethel on October 31, 1900, in Chester, PA. Her heartrending beginning (on Halloween day) only got worse. Ethel’s biological father, John Waters, has been described as a 23-year-old middle-class mixed-race pianist. Wanting to be the one to steal her virginity, Waters coldly planned the rape of young Louise. Ethel was given the “Waters” name and few of his family could deny their remarkable resemblance. Ethel survived an unbelievable childhood filled with extreme poverty, daily hunger, thieving, disdain, and being shuffled between aunts, uncles, grandmother, and neighbors. She married a man when she was only 12 years old but soon fled the abusive relationship. At 13, Ethel found a job in Philadelphia working as a chambermaid earning less than $5 a week. My generation knew Ethel Waters as the endearing gray-haired gospel singer on stage with Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows, and George Beverly Shea. Her signature song was His Eye Is On The Sparrow. The first stanza asks:

Why should I feel discouraged and why should the shadows come?

Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home?

When Jesus is my portion, a constant Friend is He,

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

In the large Graham crusades, Ethel Waters’ stage presence exuded kindheartedness and a folksy charm. Her smile alone could break down barriers – making even the irreligious crowd feel welcomed. Only recently did I learn of her cruel childhood and her spicy starlet years in nightclubs, vaudeville, Broadway, and the movies. At the age of 17, Ethel began her professional career at the Lincoln Theater in Baltimore. Recalling those days, Ethel’s laughingly reveals that her stage name became “Sweet Mama Stringbean” because, “I was so scrawny and tall.” She met the great jazzman W.C. Handy at this theater and convinced him to let her to sing his “St. Louis Blues” as part of her act. Being the first woman to sing this song on stage and with her unique style brought her quick fame and bigger and better opportunities.
A younger Ether Waters in the height of her secular singing career. A younger Ether Waters in the height of her secular singing career.
Ethel signed with Black Swan Records in 1921 and introduced the song “Dinah” at the famous Plantation Club in New York City. Columbia Records soon came courting her and this label produced the majority of her career recordings. Al Capone paid her top dollar to star at his Chicago club for a singing gig. In 1929, Ethel was making $1250 per week singing and acting in the Warner Bros movie On With the Show!  This box office hit was filmed in color and was one of the first “talking films” -- grossing $2 million worldwide. Later, Ethel became the second black woman nominated for an Academy Award. Harlem’s hip night-spot in the early 30’s was the Cotton Club, and Ethel’s rendition of “Stormy Weather” made her the talk of the Big Apple. Irving Berlin heard her sing and soon had her co-starring in the Broadway shows “Heat Wave” and “Suppertime” – becoming the first African-American to receive equal billing on Broadway. Accompanied by the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra, Ethel was the first black singer to star in a coast-to-coast radio show. In 1939, the fledgling medium called television made Ethel the first black singer/actress to star in the NBC variety special called the “The Ethel Waters Show.” ABC signed Ethel in 1950 to star in the situation-comedy entitled “The Beulah Show.” In actual fact, Ethel’s career accomplishments are too numerous to mention in a short article like this. Regrettably, as Ethel got older much of her golden voice had faded and her health suffered due to being overweight. By 1955, Ethel was deeply in debt with the IRS hounding her for back taxes and seizing the royalties of her work. Yet Ethel had faced lean and mean times many times before. A turning point came when Ethel attended the Billy Graham Crusade in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1957. Years later, she gave this testimony of that night: In 1957, I, Ethel Waters, a 380-pound decrepit old lady, rededicated my life to Jesus Christ, and boy, because He lives, just look at me now. I tell you because He lives; and because my precious child, Billy, gave me the opportunity to stand there, I can thank God for the chance to tell you His eye is on all of us sparrows. Ethel Waters was a little sparrow that soon soared with eagles – as a singer (jazz, blues, pop, and Gospel), dancer, actress (stage, television, and the big screen), and as the author of two books. Against all odds, Ethel’s life proves that even the unwanted product of a rape can be a tremendous blessing to the world.   © Ron F. Hale -- April 23, 2016
Billy Graham, Ethel Waters, George Beverly Shea, gospel singer


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