Ethel Waters (1896-1977)
Lists of the greatest jazz singers often omit Ethel Waters. Her voice could soar from dulcet, honey murmurs to rasping, soul-churning crescendos and she was the first African-American woman to star in all-white Broadway productions. Struggling against racism, sexism and the demons of her tough Philadelphia childhood, Ethel appears as a conflicted, oftentimes tortured Hollywood star. Her refusal to take any roles she considered degrading to African-Americans led to her being labelled a ‘troublemaker’ by white producers and movie studios.
Nonetheless, her powerful performance in the 1949 film Pinky led to her becoming the second black woman ever to be nominated for an Academy award.
After a disastrous and violent marriage at 13, Ethel had a relationship with an acclaimed dancer of the time, Ethel Williams. Known as the ‘two Ethels’, they were often seen walking around Harlem, hand in hand, until Williams left a devastated Waters to marry a man.
Ethel struggled with her sexuality, and in the 1950s, religious fervour led her to turn her back on ungodly jazz and concentrate solely on spiritual music. A mild stroke forced her into semi-retirement during the 1960s. Frail but undaunted, one of the greatest lesbian jazz singers of all time went on to tour with homophobic preacher Billy Graham’s evangelical company until two years before her death in 1977.