If this photo (above) looks familiar, that’s because if you are a regular reader it is.
It’s marvelous still from the 1943 musical comedy romance distributed by United Artists, “Stage Door Canteen.” We just had to share it with you again.
There they are — a svelte, smiling Ethel Waters standing at the microphone in front of the full Count Basie Orchestra of the period. (That’s Basie to the left at the piano.)
We covered Basie — a genuine artist whose various big bands set a supremely high musical bar throughout the swing era and into the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties — in a previous blog. (Scroll down and you won’t have trouble locating it.)
Today, we’re concentrating on Ethel.
In our still from “Stage Door Canteen,” Waters was 47 years old but looks younger. Keep in mind that this movie still was taken the same year that she electrified audiences with the sheer athleticism shown in “Cabin in the Sky’s” musical dance numbers. She was in great shape. Waters was what was known in Hollywood of the day as a triple threat — she could sing, dance AND act.
Pennsylvania born and Philadelphia bred, supposedly the child of a teenage rape victim, Waters survived a hard scrabble childhood (and a first marriage at 14) to edge her way into a singing career as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” (she was very thin at the time).
In the 1920’s, she became a popular recording personality, appreciated mostly by black audiences. After a lengthy series of night club and stage appearances, Ethel gradually became a mainstream star.
Her movie and tv career began in 1929 with the role of “Ethel” in “On With The Show” starring Joe E. Brown. Her mark in films came in l949 when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Pinky.” She followed that success by appearing in the stage and later (1952) film version of “Member of the Wedding.”
From then on (she died at 80 in 1977) Waters worked mostly in television, originating the title character in the “Beulah” tv series but only staying for one year (1950-51.) At around this time, Ethel also wrote with Charles Samuels her autobiography, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”
Waters was never regarded as a first rate jazz singer. According to Leonard Feather’s“The Encyclopedia of Jazz,” she “retained a full-bodied, wide-ranging voice in which vibrato and phrasing are distinctly jazz-tinged.” But, she was “principally a great show business personality and only incidentally and indirectly a jazz performer.”