Blackbird of the Blues
by Rusty DeSoto
SHE WAS A Philadelphia chambermaid who was urged up on stage by friends one fateful amateur night on Halloween in 1911. It also happened to be her fifteenth birthday. Warbling "St Louis Blues" to the crowded theatre while wearing a mask to conceal her nervousness, Ethel Waters brought down the house for the first of many times in her career.Two decades later, Ethel remarked, "They raised such a ruckus that the manager gave me first prize and a steady job. I sang, and he collected. He took in $25 a week and only paid me $9. I hope I never have another man like that around me!"
With her bell-clear soprano voice, proper diction and amazing vibrato, Ethel provided inspiration to such later vocal giants as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. You can hear the roots of Ella's scat chops in Ethel Waters' "West End Blues" and "Guess Who's in Town," both circa 1928.
West End Blues
Ethel Waters never learned to read a note of music, yet she could remember a song if someone played it for her a time or two. She was perfectly suited to jazz because she never performed a song exactly the same way twice. She said of her style, "I just let it out the way it comes to me. Once the orchestra gets used to letting themselves go, everything works out fine. The song is really the main thing, the song and the way you sing it."
Her expressive face with its wide, gap-toothed smile, deep dimples, expressive eyes and dramatic facial gestures also helped establish her as a comedienne. "The only thing about my face that I want people to take notice of is my gestures," she once said of her appearance. She was also known for wearing her signature jewelry: huge dangly earrings.
She recorded her first 2 songs, "The New York Glide" and "At the New Jump Steady Ball," in 1921 on the Cardinal Record label. The same year, Ethel was the first artist to record for Black Swan, W.C. Handy's record label, whose slogan was, "The only genuinely colored record -- others are only passing." In 1925 she moved to Columbia. By the early 1930s, she had introduced fifty song hits, including "Dinah." recorded on Oct 20, 1925, showing a more staid view of Ethel.
Before long, Ethel was headlining at Harlem's celebrated Cotton Club. In a floor show featuring Ethel, George Dewey Washington and Duke Ellington's Orchestra, "Stormy Weather" was one of six tunes introduced. The song was considered unremarkable by the producers -- until Ethel sang it. The audience went wild, and she was subsequently asked to perform it so often that it became her theme song. Soon, Ethel was starring in popular Broadway "Negro revues" such as 1927's "Africana," 1930's "Blackbirds" by Lew Leslie, along with his highly successful "Rhapsody in Black" in 1931. (The show's description states it as, "A symphony of blue notes and black rhythm.")
While appearing in "As Thousands Cheer" during the 1933-34
season, (which featured the exuberant tropical tune, "Having a Heat
the authors Moss Hart and Irving Berlin invited her to attend the
cast parties. Still conscious of racial barriers, Ethel agreed to go,
only if she could perform.
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