This Day in Black History: Sept. 1, 1977

Blues, gospel and jazz vocalist and actress Ethel Waters died.

Posted: 09/01/2014 12:00 AM EDT

From her unique vocal style to her extensive acting career, the legendary Ethel Waters left an indelible mark on American popular culture before passing away on Sept. 1, 1977.

Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 31, 1896, a young Waters sang and danced on the Southern vaudeville and cabaret circuit. In 1919, she traveled to New York City where she was billed as Sweet Mama String Bean because of her slim figure.

She entered the recording industry as a blues singer in 1921, when she recorded songs for Cardinal Records and the Black-owned Black Swan label. Cutting “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy” made Waters the first artist to release a blues record at the latter label.

The multidimensional singer would soon continue on to pop music and musical theatre, employing her well-defined, smooth phrasing and thorough sense of timing in several theatre shows, including Africana, Paris Bound, and The Ethel Waters Broadway Revue.

The celebrity that Waters gained for her acclaimed acting talents would eventually eclipse her accomplishments as a singer. She further broke down barriers for African-American performers when she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1949 film, Pinky. In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Actress in the play The Member of the Wedding.

When she was not performing, Waters also found time to pen two autobiographies, His Eye is on the Sparrow and To Me It’s Wonderful. Heralded as one of the best and most vibrant vocalists and actresses of her time, she spent the last two decades of her life touring with evangelist Billy Graham before succumbing to various health problems at age 80.

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(Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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