Ethel Waters Contemplates Her Own Vocal Style
By Clara Wilson-Hawken
Ethel Waters first performed the song “Dinah” in a 1924 production of Plantation Revue, the Broadway musical in which she replaced famed singer and dancer Florence Mills as the show’s female lead. Two years later, in 1926, Waters recorded “Dinah” for Columbia Phonograph Company, accompanied by musicians that were listed on the record’s original cover as her “Plantation Orchestra”—a reference to the musical. “Dinah” was released as the B-side of a two-sided 78 RPM phonograph record, the A-side of which featured Waters’ version of the song “Sweet Man.” Her early performances of “Dinah” seem to have helped propel the song to the category of “popular standard”; it was later recorded in 1926 by both Josephine Baker (while she was performing in Paris) as well as by an all-male vocal group called The Revelers. It was recorded in 1930 by Louis Armstrong, in 1932 by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, in 1934 by Bing Crosby, and by many others the years that followed.
Waters’ refers to the song “Dinah” towards the end of her autobiography His Eye Is On The Sparrow, first published in 1951, while reminiscing about her career in the 1920s; she writes that,
…the work I enjoyed most at that time was making records for Columbia, though that company had not yet seen fit to identify me in its catalogue as a Negro singer. Then and later I made records with such wonderful white musicians as Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Rube Bloom and Manny Klein. It was a caper and a delight doing those records with those fellows who would ad-lib my music with me. If the bosses wanted changes, we’d make them on the spot without any hesitation—and those changes would be right. (His Eye Is On The Sparrow, 198)
Below is a link to Ethel Waters’ 1926 recording, as well as an image of the record cover, which indeed does not feature an image of her or refer to her racial identity in a direct way.
While Ethel Waters’ version of “Dinah” purposely drags behind the beat, particularly on the last word or syllable of each verse, both Josephine Baker’s 1926 version and Louis Armstrong’s 1930 version have more of a sense of urgency. Armstrong and Baker take the song at a faster tempo and deviate rhythmically from Waters’ version. Below we can hear Armstrong scat intermittently between verses and play with timing, while Josephine Baker sings the song in the highest key of the three artists, contributing to its enticing sense of momentum.
Throughout His Eye is On The Sparrow Ethel Waters often compares her voice to the voices of other women blues singers of the 1910s and 1920s, such as Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and Ma Rainey. She writes of one of her live performances of “St. Louis Blues” that, “then I would sing ‘St. Louis Blues,’ but very softly. It was the first time that kind of Negro audience ever let my kind of low singing get by. And you could have heard a pin drop in that rough, rowdy audience out front. For years they had been used to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. They loved them and all the other shouters. I could always riff and jam and growl, but I never had that loud approach” (His Eye is On The Sparrow, 74).
There are few recordings of her available, but below is a link to blues singer Laura Smith’s 1924 recording of “Don’t You Leave Me Here.” The quietness Waters refers to, and the similarity Waters finds between her own voice and Laura Smith’s is clear.
In Waters’ 1932 recording (link below) of “St. Louis Blues,” we hear her “growl” (1:48) only once, as the song reaches its loudest point toward the end. Waters’ versatility as a musician is apparent when we compare her 1932 version of “St. Louis Blues” to her 1926 version of “Dinah.” Though recorded only six years apart, the two songs have strikingly different timbres; “St. Louis Blues” has a darker tone than “Dinah,” and at times during “St. Louis Blues” (for example, around 0:30) Waters seems to be singing from a deeper place in her chest voice than at any time during “Dinah.”