Ethel Waters, whose singing career spanned six decades — and whose life spanned most of the joy and sorrow available to human beings — died Thursday at the home of friends in Chatsworth.
Though she had made several fortunes from her recordings and from stage, screen and television, Miss Waters, 80, died in near poverty.
“She was almost blind from cataracts,” a friend said. “And she had been fighting diabetes and heart trouble for more than 10 years. About the only money coming in was a little Social Security check.
“But she always had a big smile for friends — and you could hear her humming that gospel tune of hers: ‘I sing because I’m happy/I sing because I’m free/His eye is on the sparrow/And I know He watches me . . .’”
It was that song — and other gospel hymns — that had finally brought the most enduring fame to the girl who began her career at 14, shouting out blues songs from the stage of a Philadelphia nightclub under the name of Sweet Mama Stringbean.
“I got $9 a week,” she recalled later. “And that wasn’t too bad — considering I had a daytime job chambermaiding and laundressing at a hotel that paid me almost $5 more . . .”
Miss Waters was born on Halloween in 1896 and was reared by her grandmother in various towns near Philadelphia.
Times were hard (in her autobiography, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” she said she sometimes stole food to stay alive) and her first marriage at the age of 12 did little to make things better.
After more than a year of “just barely not making it” on hotel jobs, two boys from her neighborhood gave her a Halloween birthday present: a chance to sing at the nightclub, “Best present a girl ever had,” she said.
“But the $9 a week that looked so good at first got small a few weeks later when I found out those two boys were getting $25 a week to ‘manage’ me.”
By the time she found out, though, she was in Baltimore, singing at the Lincoln Theater, where she met jazzman W.C. Handy and persuaded him to let her sing his “St. Louis Blues” as part of her act.
“That was a big one,” she said. “I was the first woman to sing that song on the stage. It got me noticed . . .”
Other nightclub and vaudeville engagements followed.
“I worked from 9 until unconscious,” she said. “But it was fine. I made enough I could give up the chambermaiding.”
By 1925, she had toured the United States, made several recordings (now classed as collectors’ items) and was appearing at the Plantation Club in Harlem when she made her first big hit recording, “Dinah,” which brought her an offer to appear in Paris.
“But I turned it down,” she told an interviewer. “So another singer — Josephine Baker — got the job . . .”
Her first Broadway appearance was in the all-black review, “Africana,” and she followed this with “Blackbirds” and “Rhapsody in Black” before joining Clifton Webb and Marilyn Miller in Irving Berlin’s enormously successful 1933 musical, “As Thousands Cheer.”
(Her role, she chuckled, was a broad burlesque of the character and singing style of Josephine Baker.)
Her first dramatic role was as Hagar in “Mama’s Daughters,” but she returned to musicals in 1940 to create the role Petunia, the loving and faithful wife, in “Cabin in the Sky.”
Critics called it the best performance of her career — and said so again when she played the part in the film version, though reviews of the film were otherwise lukewarm.
Before the film release of “Cabin” she had made her screen debut in “Tales of Manhattan,” and followed with “Cairo,” using what little time was left for wartime radio performances with the USO.
By 1945, Miss Waters was at the very top of her career, performing at the Embassy Club in New York and other elite nighteries. But there was trouble in sight — her voice was becoming uncertain.
She came back to Hollywood in 1949 to play to role of the grandmother in “Pinky,” which won her an Oscar nomination.
The next year, however, her career seemed finished. She could find almost no work, and money was short. “Where I come from,” she explained, “people don’t get close enough to money to keep a working acquaintance with it . . . so I don’t know how to keep it.”
But recovery was quick: in that same year, she got the part of Bernice, the cook, in “The Member of the Wedding,” and began a two-year run starring in the television series, “Beulah.”
The next year, she collaborated with Charles Samuels on her autobiography — and that was a success, too.
But the television series died, film parts became scarce again (her last appearance was “The Sound and the Fury” in 1958) and there were only occasional television roles — singing on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s show, and dramatic parts in Route 66 and Daniel Boone.
“Things were just about at rock-bottom for me,” she said later.
“I had a lot of time to myself and I got to telling myself all the things I’d missed: a marriage that would last, kids of my very own, money I could keep. You know — I even got to feeling sorry for myself that I hadn’t kept at least one copy of all my records . . .
“Now — isn’t that something to cry about?”
Miss Waters had been reared as a Catholic and throughout her life she had found joy in appearing “as the spirit moved me” at revivals and other religious services, singing spirituals.
“But in 1959,” she said, I really found some answers . . .”
That was the year she attended a Billy Graham Crusade — and promptly found herself a new career.
“The voice was gone,” she said. “But that didn’t matter. I could still sing — make a joyful noise to the Lord — and it was a lot different that singin’ blues . . .”
Some people thought she had retired.
“But that’s foolish,” she said. “I just don’t do anything in theaters or on the screen anymore. I’m still working. I work for the Lord . . .”
During the last 15 years she had appeared throughout the United States, Europe and Asia with the Billy Graham Crusade and had made a number or recordings of hymns and spirituals for Word records.
Her final public appearance was a year ago at the Billy Graham Crusade in San Diego.
Graham, en route from Australia to Hungary when he learned of Miss Waters’ death, sent a telegram in which he called her “one of the most unforgettable characters I have ever known . . . a super star not only on stage but in her personal religious faith.”
“But she didn’t need praise,” a friend said. “She was happy, even sick and broke as she was. The last time I talked to her she told me, ‘I’m sittin’ on the edge of heaven — and His eye is still on me . . .’”
Private funeral services will be held Tuesday afternoon.