The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters - Part 3: 1940s to 1970s

Portrait of Ethel Waters sitting in front of floral background. Ethel Waters as Petunia Jackson in Cabin in the Sky, musical with music by Vernon Duke, book by Lynn Root, lyrics by John La Touche, and vocal arrangements by Hugh Martin.

Studio Portrait of Ethel Waters as Petunia Jackson in Cabin in the Sky (musical) taken in 1940.

Carl Van Vechten photograph/Beinecke Library ©Van Vechten Trust. Used with Permission of Van Vechten Trust.

Waters in Cabin in the Sky

In 1940, Waters starred in the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky written by Lynn Root. Stephen Bourne writes, “Cabin was a parable of faith, temptation, loyalty, and salvation in a black community in the Deep South. Petunia Jackson (Ethel Waters), a God-fearing, domesticated housewife, tries to keep her good-hearted but weak-willed husband Little Joe (Dooley Wilson) on the straight and narrow, but Lucifer Junior (Rex Ingram) is determined to make Little Joe backslide—and take Petunia with him.” Waters received top billing for the show, a great achievement for a black actress at the time.

Originally, Waters did not want to be a part of the musical. She revealed to Willie Ruff that she disliked the original script for the musical. For Waters, she disapproved of the depiction of religion in the script. She stated, “He [Root] wanted to play games with my blessed savior…We're talking about the savior. He’s sacred!"

In addition, Waters disliked the characterization of the main characters. She disclosed, “When they brought me this play, Little Joe was a rat. He was no good and neither was Petunia in the original version.”

Waters only agreed to star in the musical when she gave her input for changes to the script. She stated, “Petunia didn't want nothing from Little Joe but his body and the more he beat her, the more she liked it. You see, not me, not Ethel. Regardless of the name, you're acting. That's why I say I don't act, I relive ‘cause if Little Joe ever touched me, I’d have killed him.”

Waters continued to add changes to the script during the rehearsals to make Petunia a stronger character. Waters went on to receive great reviews for her portrayal of Petunia. In 1941, Cabin closed after 156 performances on Broadway.

Waters speaking to Willie Ruff about Cabin in the Sky (musical version) (1974).

Film Adaption of Cabin in the Sky

In 1943, Waters starred in the film adaptation of Cabin, making her one of the first African American actresses to have a leading role in a Hollywood film. However, conflict arose between Waters and the studio behind the scenes as well as with the other actors. In particular, Waters disliked Lena Horne who she felt mimicked her singing style.

Due to outbursts on the film set of Cabin, Waters was blacklisted in Hollywood for six years. She would later return to film in Pinky (1949) and The Member of the Wedding (1952). She released her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow in 1951 and starred in her one-woman show At Home with Ethel Waters in 1953.

Waters’ Influence on Other Performers

Waters has been cited as a musical influence for various performers including Mahalia Jackson and Frank Sinatra. In the December 1954 issue of Metronome, Jackson stated that there would not be any black female performers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and herself without the influence of Waters.

In 1958, Frank Sinatra also discussed the impact Waters had on his career in Melody Maker. He stated, “When I was a youngster struggling to find myself, I heard a lot of Ethel Waters, whose feeling for the blues and great warmth touched me deep down. I shall never forget her.”

Waters expressed to Ruff that she believed other female performers copied her style. In particular, she named Adelaide Hall and Lena Horne. However, she did reveal performers who publicly recognized her influence on their careers. Waters stated, “...the one that I inspired and never fails to tell it is Carol Channing. I've been an inspiration to her…She got her start in giving an audition of me that got her a job. She tells it, not me, 'cause I didn’t know it." As a result, Waters respected Channing for admitting that she had imitated Waters’ singing style in order to get her start in the entertainment business. She also named Liza Minelli as another female performer who publicly acknowledged her influence.

Waters speaks on inspiring Carol Channing with Willie Ruff (1974).

The Later Years

Although Waters found work in films and Broadway after being blacklisted, her career declined by 1955. According to Stephen Bourne, Waters’ struggled financially and owed back taxes to the IRS. As a result, Waters appeared on the game show Break the $250,000 Bank as a way to earn money and walked away with $10,000.

Ethel Waters singing Where Jesus Is, 'Tis Heaven at a Billy Graham Crusade Event (Revival Meeting) in 1969.

By the late 1950s, Waters health deteriorated and she turned to religion. She became a part of Billy Graham’s evangelical Christian movement in 1957. She performed at Graham’s revival meetings, also known as crusades, which were televised. By 1974, Waters needed surgery in order to restore her vision. In 1977, she passed away from kidney failure and uterine cancer.

(Full lyrics for "Where Jesus Is, 'Tis Heaven" here)

*Transcripts for interview clips on this page are available here