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This Day in History – September 1, 1977

Singer-songwriter Ethel Waters dies

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On this day in 1977, singer, songwriter, and actress Ethel Waters passed away in California. Ethel began performing for others at age 17 in clubs and other various social venues. Waters often performed jazz, big band, and pop music in establishments as big as Broadway in New York City. She began her career singing blues in the 1920s.

Ethel Waters was born in 1896 due to an alleged rape of her teenage mother. Waters was raised by various family members including her grandmother, aunt, and uncle. She was accustomed to moving about, never living in one location longer than 15 months. Waters openly made comments of her difficult childhood by saying “I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.”

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Although Ethel Waters had early success singing in clubs, she had a stretch of hardship in which she joined a traveling carnival. While with the carnival, she travelled in freight cars until reaching Chicago. This time did not last long and Waters got back into the singing business shortly with a trip to Atlanta.

Waters received honors such as being nominated for Academy and Emmy awards. She was the first African American to be nominated for the distinguished Emmy award in 1962. Waters had hits such as “Dinah”, “Am I Blue?”, and “Stormy Weather”. Waters recorded with many different people and companies including Columbia Records.

In her private life, Waters had romantic relationships with both men and women, tending to be unusual for the time. In 2004, a star on the notorious Hollywood Walk of Fame was approved. At 80 years old, Waters died from a result of uterine cancer and kidney failure.

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