Ethel Waters: selected recordings, 1921-1934
A selection of Ethel Waters biographies:
Known as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” for her slender figure, Ethel Waters could sing the blues beyond compare. Her soft, refined voice, theatrical style, and signature shimmy captivated black and white audiences alike.
Waters grew up in the chaotic misery of a Philadelphia slum. “No one raised me,” she recalled. “I just ran wild.” Waters gladly put it all behind her to tour on the vaudeville circuit. She ended up in New York City, performing on the stages of both the Lincoln and Lafayette Theatres.
In 1919 she became one of the first black artists hired by Black Swan Records.* The commercial success of two 1921 recordings—”Down Home Blues” and “Oh, Daddy”—landed Waters a touring gig with Fletcher Henderson and the Black Swan Troubadours.
* Black Swan was the name of an African-American owned record label. “Down Home Blues” and “Oh, Daddy” were the first two blues numbers recorded by the company. – redhotjazz.com
Oh, Daddy (William “Bill” Russell, Ed Herbert) - 1921
Brown Baby (Henry – Grant) – 1923
Tell ‘Em ‘Bout Me (When You Reach Tennessee) – written by Sidney Easton – recorded 25 March 1924
Sweet Man (Maceo Pinkard, Roy Turk) – 1925
Sweet Georgia Brown (m. Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard, w. Kenneth Casey) — 1925
Dinah (Akst, Lewis, Young) Ms. Waters first recorded Dinah in 1925 but this is apparently not that one. The youtube provider edmundusrex says the recording, with music by the Plantation Orchestra, dates from 1926.
I’ve Found a New Baby (m. Spencer Williams, w. Jack Palmer) — Clarence Williams’ Blue Five introduced I’ve Found a New Baby with their recording made on January 22, 1926.
Spencer Williams and Palmer had collaborated in 1924 on the hit song “Everybody Loves My Baby, but My Baby Don’t Love Nobody but Me”, and Williams had a hit in 1919 with “Royal Garden Blues”. All three have become standards, and “I’ve Found a New Baby” is included in the repertoire of almost every traditional jazz band.
This recording by Ethel Waters is dated 1925 by the provider; but I’ve found no other evidence that the song was recorded or even existed earlier than 1926.
Lonesome Swallow ( J.C. Johnson, Andy Razaf ) 1928
Ethel Waters and John Bubbles perform Birmingham Bertha in On With the Show (1929)
On with the Show! (1929) is historically important in cinema history as the first modern sound film photographed entirely in Technicolor. To explain this breakthrough, this film was promoted in 1929 terms as a 100% ‘talkie’, meaning that it had synchronized speech. Prior to this, Tiffany had released The Cavalier (1928), which was technically the first feature length sound completely in Technicolor, but only had music and sound effects with silent title cards, and would be regarded as a silent film by viewers today.
Birmingham Bertha (m. Harry Akst, w. Grant Clarke) — performed by Ethel Waters in On With the Show, with dancing by John William Sublett (John Bubbles)
(below) 1929 recording, with slide show
I Got Rhythm (m. George Gershwin, w. Ira Gershwin) — 1931
Long before Obama…there was Sammy Davis, Jr. as “Rufus”, running for President
In 1933 Waters reprised Am I Blue in the film Rufus Jones for President. Starring as Rufus is seven year old Sammy Davis, Jr. In the following video he introduces the song with the question, “What’s the matter mammy, is you blue? The second song is Underneath a Harlem Moon (Mack Gordon, Harry Revel)
Career breakthrough — Stormy Weather
While she had already achieved nightclub and recording success by the mid twenties following the big hit Dinah and sang in some of the earliest “talking pictures” made by Hollywood it was her subtle performance of Arlen and Koehler’s Stormy Weather at the Cotton Club in 1933 that made her a star and the talk of the town. Irving Berlin caught a performance and signed her up for his revue As Thousands Cheer. Opening September 30, 1933, the show ran to 400 performances, a rarity in the midst of the Depression. Waters received rave reviews for her performances of the Berlin songs Heat Wave and Supper Time. Engagements in other successful Broadway productions followed: At Home Abroad, Mamba ’s Daughters, Cabin in the Sky, and Member of the Wedding.
Stormy Weather (m. Harold Arlen, w. Ted Koehler) Ethel Waters introduced this song at The Cotton Club in Harlem. Her recording in that year was given a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1973, as were her recordings of Dinah (1925) and Am I Blue? (1929)
Heat Wave (Irving Berlin) — 1933
Miss Otis Regrets (Cole Porter) – 1934