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Ethel Waters

Am I Blue? Etherl Waters sings ’em:

Her 51 Finest, 1923-1940

RETROSPECTIVE RTS 4352 2CDs [158:00]

 

CD 1 (1923-1931)

1. Am I Blue? (1929) w. The Travellers

2. Ethel Sings ’Em (1923) w. J.C. Johnson

3. Sweet Georgia Brown (1925) EW & Her Ebony Four

4. Dinah (1925) w. Shrimp Jones & the Plantation Orchestra

5. Shake That Thing (1925) w. Pearl Wright

6. I’ve Found A New Baby (1926) w. Joe Smith & Fletcher Henderson

7. I’m Coming, Virginia (1926) w. Will Marion Cook & his Singing Orchestra

8. My Handy Man (1928) w. James P. Johnson

9. West End Blues (1928) w. Clarence Williams

10. Organ Grinder Blues (1928) w. Clarence Williams

11. Birmingham Bertha w. The Travellers

12. True Blue Lou (1929) w. Bob Effros, Tommy Dorsey and others

13. Shoo-Shoo Boogie Boo (1929) w. Bob Effros, Tommy Dorsey and others

14. Georgia Blues (1929) w. Pearl Wright

15. Waiting At The End Of The Road (1929) w. Bob Effros, Pearl Wright and others

16. Long, Lean, Lanky Mama (1929) w. Pearl Wright

17. Black And Blue (1930) w. Frank Signorelli and others

18. You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me (1930) w. Benny Goodman and others

19. I Got Rhythm (1930) w. Benny Goodman and others

20. Three Little Words (1930) w. Benny Goodman and others

21. When Your Lover Has Gone (1931) w. Benny Goodman and others

22. Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone (1931) w. Benny Goodman and others

23. You Can’t Stop Me From Loving You (1931) w. Benny Goodman and others

24. River, Stay ’Way From My Door (1931) w. Benny Goodman and others

25. Shine On, Harvest Moon (1931) w. Benny Goodman and others

CD 2 (1932-1940)

1. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love(1932) w. Duke Ellington & his Famous Orchestra

2. Porgy (1932) w. Duke Ellington & his Famous Orchestra

3. Stormy Weather (1933) w. The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra

4. Don’t Blame Me (1933) w. The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra

5. Shadows On The Swanee (1933) w. The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra

6. Heat Wave (1933) w. Manny Klein, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and others

7. Harlem On My Mind 1933) w. Manny Klein, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and others

8. I Just Couldn’t Take It, Baby (1933) w. Benny Goodman & his Orchestra

9. A Hundred Years From Today 1933) w. Benny Goodman & his Orchestra

10. Come Up And See Me Sometime (1934) w. Victor Young & orchestra

11. Miss Otis Regrets (1934) w. The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra

12. When It’s Sleepy Time Down South (1934) w. The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra

13. Moonglow (1934) w. The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra

14. I Ain’t Gonna Sin No More (1934) w. Taft Jordan, Edgar Sampson, John Kirby and others

15. You’re A Sweetheart (1938) w. unknown orchestra

16. I’ll Get Along Somehow (1938) w. unknown orchestra

17. Frankie And Johnny (1938) w. Eddie Mallory & his orchestra

18. Jeepers Creepers (1938) w. Eddie Mallory & his orchestra

19. Y’ Had It Comin’ To You (1939) w. Eddie Mallory & his orchestra

20. Bread And Gravy (1939) w. Eddie Mallory & his orchestra

21. Down In My Soul (1939) w. Eddie Mallory & his orchestra

22. Georgia On My Mind (1939) w. Eddie Mallory & his orchestra

23. Old Man Harlem (1939) w. Eddie Mallory & his orchestra

24. Baby, What Else Can I Do? (1939) w. Eddie Mallory & his orchestra

25. Taking A Chance On Love (1940) w. Max Meth & his orchestra

26. Cabin In The Sky w. Max Meth & his orchestra

In her 80 years, Ethel Waters (1896-1977) lived many different ‘lives’. Initially she worked, still in her teens, on the Black vaudeville circuit; in the 1920s she worked as a blues singer; moving towards the world of ‘swing’ (the experience of working alongside Bessie Smith had made Waters realize that her ability lay more in ballads than blues), she toured with Fletcher Henderson and, as evidenced on this 2 CD set, recorded with Ellington in 1932, having already recorded with various ensembles containing a variety of accomplished jazzmen – so, for example, track 18 on CD1, ‘You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me’ she is supported by a group which includes trumpeter Manny Klein, Tommy Dorsey on trombone, clarinetist Benny Goodman, Adrian Rollini’s bass sax and Ben Selvin’s violin, with Rube Bloom at the piano. Though continuing to sing and record, during the 1930s and 40s Waters also worked increasingly as an actress, on both stage and screen. She played in musical revues such as As ThousandsCheered (1933-34) as well as straight dramas such as Mamba’s Daughters (1939). In 1950 she won an award from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle for her performance as Berenice Sadie Brown in The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers’ stage adaptation of her novel of the same name. Waters also played the role in the 1952 film of the play, directed by Fred Zinneman. Gradually her acting assumed greater importance than her singing. In June 1949 she had become the first African American to have her own TV special – when NBC broadcast The Ethel Waters Show in June of that year. Gradually, as she began to have health problems in the late 1950s and early 1960s she began to perform less – though 1957 saw her in An Evening with Ethel Waters on Broadway. Always a woman of strong religious convictions, she also toured intermittently, as a singer, with Billy Graham on his evangelical ‘crusades’.

Distinctions in this area cannot be hard and fast, but it seems to me that Waters is at her best when interpreting popular music in what one might call a jazz-influenced style, rather than as a jazz vocalist tout court. Her blues singing, as represented on these CDs as well as elsewhere, lacks the emotional intensity of the great blues singers. On the whole, the more down-to-earth the material the less comfortable Waters sounds with it. On Andy Razaf’s ‘My Handy Man’ it sounds as though she finds the relentless double-entendres distasteful; certainly she doesn’t relish them in the way that, for example, Victoria Spivey does in the recording she made of the same tune in the following year. Nor does she do anything like full justice to the bawdy implications of Clarence Williams’ ‘Organ Grinder Blues’. She is much more persuasive on standards like ‘You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me’, ‘Three Little Words’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’; while there’s nothing here that one would set up as a model of jazz vocalism, her phrasing echoes that of the instrumentalists alongside her and there are moments when she ventures brief passages of scat or colours her voice instrumentally to good effect.

CD2 begins with two tracks Waters recorded with the Ellington band in December 1932. Both – ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ and ‘Porgy’ - were written by Jimmy McHugh (with lyrics by Dorothy Fields) for the revue Blackbirds of 1928. While the work of the Ellington band, which included Cootie Williams, Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ellington himself and Sonny Greer is not (by Ellingtonian standards) anything extraordinary, their sheer musicality and rhythmic subtlety seems to inspire Waters to some of her most sophisticated work. A jazz ‘purist’ might wish that Waters could have worked regularly with Ellington and become, as his best vocalists did, a true member of the band. But it was as a wide-ranging popular entertainer that Waters was to achieve success. Track after track, especially on the second of these CDs bears witness to the musical side of her achievement in that field. Highlights include ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘Don’t Blame Me’ (another tune by McHugh and Fields), ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ and ‘Georgia on My Mind’.

In his entry on Waters in Jazz: The Essential Companion (1987), Digby Fairweather quotes some remarks on Ethel Waters by the Chicago trumpeter Jimmy McPartland: “We were enthralled with her. We liked Bessie Smith very much, too, but Waters had more polish, I’d guess you’d say. She phrased so wonderfully, the natural quality of her voice was so fine and she sang the way she felt”. These remarks were made, I think, with particular reference to Waters’ early work, but they remain true of the best of her work right across the years covered by this well-chosen anthology. If your collection lacks adequate representation of the ‘jazz side’ of Ethel Waters, these CDs will fill the gap perfectly. Like most (all?) of these ‘Retrospective’ collections Am I Blue? provides comprehensive discographical documentation, in terms of personnel, dates etc. The cast of (not literally!) ‘thousands’ includes Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, the Dorsey brothers, Clarence Williams, Benny Goodman, Tyree Glenn, Jack Teagarden, Joe Sullivan, Bunny Berigan, Taft Jordan, James C. Johnson and Lawrence Brown amongst many others.

While this music may not, all of it, be part of the central jazz tradition, it could not have happened without that tradition – and these CDs provide more than two and a half hours of enjoyable listening.

Glyn Pursglove

 


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