Ethel Waters was raised by her grandmother in the dismal ghettoes of South Philadelphia. She began working as a hotel chambermaid for $4.75 a week, and at age 12 she married the first of three husbands. Her goal at that time was to become a maid/companion to a wealthy white woman; instead, she launched a show-business career at 17, when she entered a local talent contest on a dare. Her exquisite, self-trained singing voice attracted the attention of a black vaudeville team, who offered her $10 weekly to join their act. Billed as Sweet Mama Stringbean in honor of her tall, slender frame, Waters toured the black vaudeville circuit singing such standards-to-be as "St. Louis Blues," and continued to hold on to her chambermaid job just in case the bubble burst.
Throughout her singer years, Waters fought against performing "hot" -- i.e. sexually suggestive -- songs, preferring instead to perform religious music. But the audiences preferred "hot," and that's what she gave them during her formative years. Her popularity extended to white audiences by way of the recording of her signature tune "Dinah." In 1927, she starred on Broadway in the all-black musical revue Africana, which she followed in quick succession with Vaudeville, Blackbirds of 1930 and Rhapsody in Black. Booked into the Cotton Club, a Harlem night spot catering to a rich white clientele, Waters caught the eye of Irving Berlin with her rendition of "Stormy Weather." Berlin cast her in his 1933 musical revue As Thousands Cheer, supplying her with the hit tunes "Heat Wave," "Harlem on My Mind" and "Supper Time." The difference between As Thousands Cheer and Waters' earlier New York stage appearances was that, for the first time in Broadway history, a black female entertainer was given equal billing with her white co-stars. After spending several years in touring shows, she returned to Broadway in 1939, making her dramatic, nonsinging debut in Mamba's Daughters. The following year, she starred in the musical Cabin in the Sky, in which she introduced "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe" and "Taking a Chance on Love."
Her film career, which began with her performance of "Am I Blue?" in the 1929 Warner Bros. musical On With the Show, was jump-started in 1943 with the movie version of Cabin in the Sky, wherein Waters co-starred with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong. Back in New York, Waters was offered the role of housekeeper Bernice Sadie Brown in Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding, but she turned it down, insisting that her character be rewritten to include "more religion." She later accepted the role of mulatto Jeanne Crain's worldly-wise grandmother in the 1949 film Pinky, a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination. The following year, she finally opened on Broadway in Member of the Wedding, her role at last rewritten to her specifications. By the time Waters appeared in the film version of Member of the Wedding, she'd become a law unto herself: when director Fred Zinnemann attempted to instruct Waters in a minor bit of stage business, she raised her head to the skies and bellowed "God is my director!" Evidently God knew His business, since Member earned Waters her second Oscar nomination.
By rights, Ethel Waters should have spent her last years treated with the reverence and respect due a person of her accomplishments. Unfortunately, she managed to distance herself from her more militant black colleagues by (a) starring as a maid on the TV series Beulah; (b) aligning herself with such white Establishment types as Billy Graham and Richard M. Nixon; and (c) making such proclamations as "I'm not concerned with civil rights. I'm concerned with God-given rights, and they are available to everyone!" Waters worked only sporadically in her eighth decade. She died at the age of 80, in the Chatsworth, California home of the young couple then caring for her. Though she left behind a comparatively tiny financial estate, the artistic legacy of Ethel Waters includes dozens of 1920s recordings, 10 film appearances, and two autobiographies.