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queer, black & blue: ethel waters, the original trailblazer

March 15, 2019
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Ethel Waters was born in the darkness. The daughter of a teenage rape victim, Ethel was came into the world on Halloween 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Raised in poverty by her grandmother, two aunts and an uncle, the singer’s early life was unstable and uncertain, never staying in one place for more than 15 months at a time. “I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family,” she would write in His Eye on the Sparrow, her 1951 autobiography, now considered a literary classic.

In the grim darkness of her childhood, neglected by the surrounding adults, Ethel found herself running errands for drug lords in exchange for food and housing. Trapped between the wills of her grandmother and her estranged mother, music was a silver lining and a way out. Marrying for the first time at age 12 or 13, her partnership with Merritt Purnsley was abusive, and one she left a few years in, becoming a hotel maid in Philadelphia. Yet around the same time, Waters was persuaded by friends to perform two songs at her own 17th birthday party at a nightclub on Juniper Street. Stunning the crowd, the birthday girl won a singing contest that launched her career and began the popularization of jazz-blues music.

Waters’ winning performance landed her a real gig at Baltimore’s Lincoln Theatre, and lead to a string of vaudeville performances with the likes of Bessie Smith, often doing blackface skits for white audiences. Soon after, in 1919, Waters moved to New York City, bringing her act to nightclubs and speakeasies all across Harlem, including the now-iconic Edmond’s Cellar. By 1921, Waters had become just the fifth Black woman to make a record, period.

In 1925, Ethel would earn her first hit, with the dynamic “Dinah,” making her first appearance at the Plantation Club on Broadway, and touring with the Black Swan Dance Masters. It was at this point that Waters’ career exploded.

Ethel would you go on to be married three times in her life, but one of her most profound relationships was with dancer Ethel Williams. Appearing together on the stage, they were dubbed the “Two Ethels”, despite the great efforts they made to conceal their relationship. They ruled the Harlem nightclub scene along with lesbian and queer blues singers like Gladys Bentley, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Lucille Bogan.

“What was occurring was occurring clandestinely, or within urban settings that were more or less secret and difficult to penetrate,” said Robert Philipson, director of the documentary, T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s. “It was very much under the cover of the night because they could be prosecuted for same-sex activity. There were some open demonstrations of alternative sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance and in Greenwich Village in the late 20s.”

In many ways, Ethel was the first Black woman to pioneer Black spaces in white entertainment. She was the first Black women to integrate Broadway, appearing in Irving Berlin’s “As Thousands Cheer” with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick. At the same time, she was performing as a singer with Jack Denny & His Orchestra on a national radio program as well as appearing in nightclubs around town. During this time she became the highest-paid performer on Broadway.

And on June 15, 1939, NBC debuted The Ethel Waters Show, a variety special that marked the first time an African American would star in her own TV show. A decade later, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Elia Kazan’s Pinky. During the 1950s, Waters would go on to star in TV series on both ABC and NBC, earning a Primetime Emmy Award nomination in 1962.

Throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and well into the ’50s, Waters maintained mainstream popularity. She died Septemeber 1, 1977 at age 80.