Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Birmingham Bertha"

The legendary jazz, blues and gospel singer had a difficult start in life. Her mother, Louise Anderson, was 13 when she gave birth to Ethel. Louise had been raped at knifepoint by Ethel's father. "I was never a child," Waters would later say. "I was never cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family."

At age 15, Waters sang at a club in Philadelphia on amateur night. She so impressed the management that she was given a job and billed as "Sweet Mama Stringbean." In 1921, she began recording and four years later became the main attraction at Sam Salvin's Plantation Club in Harlem, where she introduced one of her signature tunes, "Dinah."

By 1927, she was on Broadway, and in 1929, she appeared in the Warner Bros. early talkie "On With the Show!," where she performed "Am I Blue?" In 1933, she introduced the song "Stormy Weather" at the Cotton Club in Harlem. She was back on Broadway in 1933 in the musical "As Thousands Cheer," marking the first time a black performer worked with a white cast. Waters spread her wings on Broadway, going dramatic in 1939's"Mamba's Daughters." The following year, she appeared in the musical fantasy "Cabin in the Sky," which she reprised for the 1943 film version.

Above: Ethel Waters performs "Birmingham Bertha" in the 1929 musical "On With The Show." (Warner Bros., Warner Bros. / January 25, 2005)

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