Vocalist and actress Ethel Waters was a key figure in the development of African American culture between the two World Wars. She broke barrier after barrier, becoming the first black woman heard on the radio, the first black singer to perform on television, the first African American to perform in an integrated cast on Broadway, and the first black woman to perform in a lead dramatic role on Broadway.
As a singer Waters introduced over 50 songs that became hits, including standards of the magnitude of St. Louis Blues and Stormy Weather. Her jazzy yet controlled vocal style influenced a generation of vocalists, black and white, and her career, encompassing stage, song, and screen, flowered several times in comebacks after tumbling to low points.
Born October 31, 1896, in Chester, Pennsylvania, she had to overcome the squalor of her sordid childhood and early struggles. Her singing career began with amateur night performances in Philadelphia, and then slowly moved in the black theater circuit, where she was billed as Sweet Mama Stringbean.
She began recording in 1921 for the Black Swan label, continuing with that company through 1924. When she introduced Dinah at the famous Plantation Club (Broadway and 50th Street) in New York City in 1925, she met with such success that she was signed by Columbia Records, for whom she was to make many of her most famous recordings during the next decade. Her career continued to escalate in such black shows as ‘Africana,’ ‘The Blackbirds of 1928’ (and 1930) and ‘Rhapsody in Black.’ In 1929, she made her film debut in the new talking films, singing Am I Blue? and Birmingham Bertha in ‘On with the Show,’ remade a few years later as ‘Forty-Second Street.’