From the 1920s through the early ’40s, Ethel Waters was probably the most famous black woman in America: a bestselling recording artist, a popular nightclub performer, the star of five Broadway shows and several Hollywood movies. After a grim period of little work as she aged and gained weight, Waters triumphed again as an African American matriarch in the 1949 film “Pinky” and in the lyrical 1950 stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novel “The Member of the Wedding.” By the time Waters died in 1977, however, she was better known to most Americans as an elderly, large, devoutly religious woman who frequently appeared at Billy Graham’s fundamentalist Crusades. People had largely forgotten the glamorous crossover artist who belied stereotypes, the first black woman to headline on Broadway at the Palace — the mecca for all vaudeville performers, the star of a groundbreaking Broadway drama (“Mamba’s Daughters” in 1939) that empathetically depicted three generations of African American women. One of Waters’ biggest hits, the sultry, heartbreaking “Stormy Weather,” is remembered instead as Lena Horne’s signature song.
more from Wendy Smith at the LA Times here.