Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
(b 31 October 1900, Chester PA; d 1 September 1977, Los Angeles) Singer, actress. Many sources give earlier birth dates. She began typed as a blues singer, but became one of the most highly regarded interpreters of her era; her hits included many show songs, and she was one of the first to bring a modern style of phrasing to them, so that many described her as a jazz singer; she had a beautiful voice with a range from contralto to soprano, and excellent diction. She knew her own worth and she could be bad-tempered because she knew she would be kept from greater success because she was black (even so she was said to be the first black woman to star in a network radio show '33 and to appear on TV '39); she did not get along with other singers, who therefore did not give her any credit though she influenced all of them.
She had a difficult childhood, worked as a maid, won a talent contest, sang in theatres and was called 'Sweet Mama Stringbean' because she was tall and slim; moved to NYC and had hit records on Black Swan early '20s, recording and touring with Fletcher Henderson; then on Columbia and ARC labels. Among two dozon hits '21-34 she was always associated with 'Stormy Weather' '33, featured at the Cotton Club. She recorded with Duke Ellington '32, Benny Goodman '33 (hit 'A Hundred Years From Today' included Jack Teagarden; Goodman played on several of her hits). 'Come Up And See Me Sometime' (from Mae West film) included Bunny Berigan on trumpet. She recorded for Decca later in the 1930s; toured with own show '35-9, accompanied by her then companion, bandleader Eddie Mallory, and toured '48-9 with Henderson on piano.
On stage she was seen in Hello, 1919!, Africana '27, Blackbirds Of 1930, Rhapsody In Black '31, As Thousands Cheer '33 (she sang Irving Berlin's 'Supper Time', an anti-lynching song years before Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit'), At Home Abroad '35, Cabin In The Sky '40 (filmed '43), Laugh Time '43; non-singing roles: Mamba's Daughters '39, Member Of The Wedding '50 (New York Drama Critics' Award for Best Actress; filmed '52); other films: On With The Show '29, Check And Double Check '30 (with Ellington and Amos'n'Andy), Gift Of Gab '34, Tales Of Manhattan and Cairo '40, Stage Door Canteen '43, Pinky '49 (nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscar), The Sound And The Fury '59. She appeared on TV one season in title role of sitcom Beulah as a maid, the role subsequently played by Hattie McDaniel. She was the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Emmy '62 after an episode of Route 66 called "Good Night, Sweet Blues" which also featured Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. Look for it on YouTube.
Her autobiography His Eye Is On The Sparrow '51 was a best-seller (there was a gospel LP on Word of the same title); To Me It's Wonderful '72 was also an autobiography. Albums mostly out of print included On Stage And Screen '25-40 from Columbia Special Products, Oh Daddy '21-4 and Jazzin' Babies Blues on Biograph, Ethel Waters '46-7 on Glendale, Miss Ethel Waters on Monmouth Evergreen, On The Air on Totem. Her recordings '21-40 were compiled on six Classics CDs.