Ethel Waters: she really was incomparable
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How sad I am, each day I feel worse,
My mark of Ham seems to be a curse!
How will it end? Ain't got a friend,
My only sin Is my skin.
What did I do, to be so Black And Blue?
- What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue
For most of my life I thought of Ethel Waters as nothing more than the black woman who sang at Bill Graham crusades.
I can't recall when I decided she's one of the most neglected American singers. Maybe it was seeing Cabin in the Sky, which mixes great music with a hilarious picture of Heaven including the Almighty himself. Or maybe Waters was mentioned in Will Friedwald's Jazz Singing. I've reading that book made me spend thousands of dollars buying CDs. Don't begrudge a penny of it.
Ethel Waters started back in the 1920s, some people call her the first African-American superstar. Don't know what may have influenced her style, maybe it just emerged sui generis. Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald acknowledged her influence.
The earliest recordings I've heard are blues songs. Probably no one will ever equal Bessie Smith's instinctive sense of life's tragedies. My favorite Waters blues singing are those slyly obscene songs that Black musicians got past the naïve censors' ears.
Like last centuries great singers – say, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan - she was mistress of many idioms, and left blues for jazz and pop. Definitions of jazz singing are often ideological so I'll just say my favorite recension of Ethel Waters is the pop singer.
Like Ella Fitzgerald she had a naturally lovely voice, clear diction and never neglected a lyric's nuance.
I could begrudge her leaving venues like the Cotton Club for the evangelist's tent. But her singing has given me much pleasure. If searching for a real cabin in the sky made her happy I not fool enough to argue. And to be fair I've never sampled any of her religious work.
And I'm happy for my sake that while I was on vacation from buying compact discs the labels put out a few new Ethel Waters CDs for me to buy.