Ethel Waters [music]

Like my other favourite female singers of the 1920s, Helen Kane and Annette Hanshaw, Ethel Waters has a voice that is as packed with personality as music. Waters had a much more difficult start in life – as an African-American woman, she was never going to be overloaded with privilege, and Ethel had an especially tough time being born to a teenaged rape victim, and married very young herself. She got her break when asked to sing while attending a costume party at a nightclub.

You can list Waters achievements: celebrated singer during the Harlem Renaissance, performer at the legendary Cotton Club, the fifth black woman to make a record, the second African-American Oscar nominee… but what you have to listen to her songs to discover is just how well-deserved the plaudits were.

My favourite recordings by Ethel are the ones where she’s telling a story as that really shows off the emotional range of her singing. ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ for example, starts as a polite, deferential statement that Miss Otis is unavailable for lunch, and as the tale grows more melodramatic so her voice soars and dips, at time almost sobbing. I've never heard her recording of 'When Your Lover Has Gone' but it's one of mty favourite songs and I bet she does it proud.

You can get recordings of songs by Ethel Waters on Amazon. I got mine from Duck, Son & Pinker, Bath’s much-missed vintage music store.


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