(AP) -One of the most celebrated entertainers of mid-20th century America, Ethel Waters was as contradictory as she was talented.
Waters never could read music and didn’t engage a voice instructor until well into her career. But she worked over songs like Heat Wave and Stormy Weather until they carried her unique signature.
Bisexual, she longed for intimate relationships but she denied lovers, husbands and children the attention she lavished on her career. She was deeply religious, yet she had a terrible temper and routinely cursed and fought with those who dared to cross her.
In her day, a poor black woman needed divine guidance, as well as fire and commitment, to blaze a path from the ghetto to Broadway and Hollywood. Donald Bogle’s Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters chronicles her journey and the creation of an icon of American entertainment.
While a teenager in Philadelphia, Waters (1896-1977) drew notice as a down-and-dirty blues singer. She gradually cleaned up her image and became one of the first black women to record her music and perform on the radio. Later, she reinvented herself again as a dramatic actress on stage, film and television.
For many years, racism kept her from a wider audience – complaints from Southern listeners ended her national radio show in 1934 — and racism slowed her efforts to broaden her material. She accepted as a fact of life, that blacks wouldn’t be admitted to many of the theaters where she performed.
Becoming a star didn’t trump prejudice, not even her own. Waters often said she was most comfortable with “my people,” both socially and as a performer, though she was suspicious of better educated blacks. She never lost her distrust of whites.
Waters alone was responsible for some of her career missteps. While a standout in the 1943 all-black MGM musical Cabin in the Sky, she proved so difficult that she was all but banned from Hollywood films. An Oscar-nominated comeback in the racially charged drama Pinky in 1949 led to an even greater triumph on the stage the following year in The Member of the Wedding.
With her days as a lean-and-sexy siren but a memory, she became a symbol of black dignity and, as a regular member of the Rev. Billy Graham’s national crusades, a grass roots evangelist.
Bogle, the leading scholar on blacks in film, provides an enlightening look at African-American culture and society as he describes Waters’ life and career. He stumbles badly, however, in filling his story with unnecessary detail that overwhelms an intimate portrait of an artist in her time.
And Ethel Waters was an artist, in more than one medium and in more than one art. For the generations that will know her only through old recordings and a handful of films, Bogle’s Heat Wave shows just how special she truly was.