Ethel Waters, 80, who rose from a ghetto background to win national regard and renown as a singer and stage and film actress of enormous emotional force, died in Los Angeles yesterday at the home of friends.
Particularly well known for her moving renditions of such songs as "Stormy Weather," "Dinah," and "Am I Blue," and for her Broadway and motion picture work in "Member of the Wedding." Miss Waters reportedly had been suffering from a variety of ailments in the past year. Death was attributed to apparent heart and kidney failure.
Widely known for her bestselling autobiography, "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." Miss Waters, long known for her firm religious convictions, had been associated in recent years with evangelist Billy Graham, and appeared at his crusades.
After earlier being known for popular and blues songs, she won a new reputation as a singer of religious and gospel songs, and sang at a church service at the White House in 1971.
Miss Waters was a woman of indomitable will, who seemed unscarred by the privations and hardships that marked her early life and which she made no attempt to disguise.
She was born in Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia, and admitted to a lack of formal education, resulting from her need to work to support herself.
"I went through Swarthmore College in two weeks," she once said. "As a scrubwoman."
While learning as a child "all about sex and life in the raw," in a neighborhood that was pockeo by vice and poverty, she said. Miss Waters learned the ability to "outcurse any stevedore."
She also developed a good singing voice. As a teen-ager, singing at a Halloween party, she impressed two black entertainers who promised her $10 a week.
At 17, Miss Waters was hesitant. "I was getting $3.50 a week as a scullion and chambermaid," she recalled. "But that was steady work, something I'd learned to keep a half-nelson on whenever possible."
By about 1917 she made her first stage appearance, at the Lincoln Theater, in Baltimore. Other engagements followed, in black clubs and theaters.
"I used to work from 9 until unconscious," she once said. "I was just a young girl, and when I tried to sing anything but the double-meaning songs, they would say 'Come on Ethel, get hot.'"
Early in her career, after asking W. C. Handy for material, she became the first woman to sing his celebrated "St. Louis Blues."
After gaining increasing success in clubs, Miss Waters made a Broadway stage debut in the 1924 musical "Plantation Revue of 1924," in which she introduced the jazz classic "Dinah."
She began interspersing club work with such other Broadway shows as "Africana," "Blackbirds," "Rhapsody in Black," and in the 1933 Irving Berlin musical "As Thousands Cheer."
In 1938 she made her dramatic debut in "Mamba's Daughters." When the reviews seemed stingy with praise, a group of her prominent admirers bought an advertisement describing her performance as "supurb" . . . "profound . . . emotional experience" and a "magnificent example of great acting."
After making several movies, including "Pinkly" (1949) she returned to Broadway in 1950 in "The Member of the Wedding."
The play, in which she gave one of Broadway's most widely hailed performances, was the answer to her prayers.
The year before, she said, she had only worked seven weeks. When a woman's practically an institution - and then can't get no work - that's awful," she said."I was down to working in all kinds of dumps and dives. The dregs of the profession."
Playing a cook, who provided wise counsel to a motherless child. Miss Waters was described as "superb," "magnificently assured," and "high up among the first ladies of the American theater." She won an Academy Award nomination for when she played that role in the film.
Over the years Miss Waters reportedly earned more than $1 million dollars. Some of her income went to help support and educate about 20 black girls from deprived backgrounds.
Some of her money just seemed to disappear. In 1957 a news report described her as broke. Social Security became an important part of her income.
"Where I come from," said Miss Waters, who reportedly had been married for the first time at the age of 12, "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 friends and visitors reported that they always found her smiling, and ready to end a visit with a stanza from one of her favorite songs:
"I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me."
In a telegram, from Europe, where he was traveling. Billy Graham called Miss Waters, "a superstar not only on stage and screen but in her personal religious faith."
A memorial service is scheduled for next Tuseday at 1:30 p.m. at the Church of the Recessional, Forest Lawn Mortuary, Glendale, Calif.