Paula West

Tribute to Ethel Waters

San Francisco, CA
I told a friend I was seeing a tribute to Ethel Waters and he said, “Who’s she?” Sadly unrecognized today, Waters was a major star in her day, working alongside Bessie Smith who made her expand into popular songs and ballads from her blues and gospel base. Waters’s first hit, “Dinah” in 1925, cemented her reputation, and she became the highest paid performer during Harlem’s renaissance. She was the first to popularized numerous songs, including her signature “Am I Blue?,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Heat Wave,” “Cabin in the Sky” and “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.”  As an actress, she was the second African-American woman to be nominated for an Oscar (1949) and the first to be nominated for an Emmy (1962).

West’s velvety contralto and rich attention to the phrasing of her lyrics, lend her jazz sensibilities to Waters’s music. Her cover of the profoundly affecting anti-lynching song, “Supper Time,” is stronger and less emotional than Waters’s own, resonating with grief, anger and forlorn resignation. The bawdy sexual innuendos in dance hall songs, like 1928’s “Do What You Did Last Night” and “My Handy Man,” fooled no one and seemed to titillate all. West delivers them with a detached weightiness that draws attention to the words. “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” a lovely ballad, is all West, with her rounded, long-held notes and clipped phrasing. She has fun with “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” finds the optimism in “A Hundred Years from Today,” and includes a cute 1933 Irving Berlin parody of Josephine Baker (“Harlem on My Mind”). Fortunately, there have been many tributes to Waters, most notably Diahann Carroll’s 1978 recording, the Bobby Short-hosted 1985 Kool Jazz tribute and, more recently, Tonya Pinkins’s 2013 show. Paula West lends her considerable talent and admiration to Waters’s enduring legacy.

Steve Murray
Cabaret Scenes
September 11, 2014