Ethel Waters had a long and distinguished
career as a vocalist and actress, though the years she spent as a blues singer were
limited to the early 1920s. With smooth, well-defined phrasing and a meticulous
sense of timing. Waters' singing style rated with the best of the eras'
vocalists. Had she dedicated herself to solely singing the blues, Waters might well
have been a great blues singer. But by the mid-20s she began devoting most of her
stage and recording time to vaudeville and pop tunes. Waters arrived in New York in
1919 after spending time as a singer and dancer on the East Coast and Southern vaudeville
circuit. Due to her slender appearance , she was billed as "Sweet Mama
In 1921, she cut two songs for Cardinal
Records, "The New York glide" and "At the New Jump Steady Ball," Later
that year she became the first artist to release a blues record on the Black-owned Black
Swan label, recording "Down Home Blues" and "Oh Daddy" for the
company. She went on to record for numerous other labels. In addition to
making records, Waters frequently performed in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities
with Fletcher Henderson's Jazz Masters in the Black Swan Troubadours troupe. By the
mid-20s Waters had drifted from the blues and had become a successful pop singer.
She easily adapted her suave and polished
vocal style to sing breezy pop and show standards of the day. Waters performed in a
number of revues, including "Africana," "Paris Bound," and "The
Ethel Waters Broadway Revue," she also added acting to her repertoire. In 1929,
she landed her first role in a film called On with the Show. A year later she
appeared in Check and Double Check with "Amos n Andy" and Duke Ellington.
Her performance in the film opened the door for roles in other '30s and '40s films,
including "Pinky" in 1949, which won her an Oscar nomination for best supporting
actress. In 1939, Waters became a Broadway star, appearing in "Mamba's
Daughters" in a non-singing, dramatic role.