“Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters” (Harper, $26.99), by Donald Bogle: One of the most celebrated entertainers of mid-20th century America, Ethel Waters was as contradictory as she was talented.
Waters never could read music and didn’t engage a voice instructor until well into her career, but she worked over songs like “Heat Wave” and “Stormy Weather” until they carried her unique signature. Bisexual, she longed for intimate relationships, but she denied lovers, husbands and children the attention she lavished on her career. She was deeply religious, yet she had a terrible temper and routinely cursed and fought with those who dared to cross her.
In her day, a poor black woman needed divine guidance as well as fire and commitment to blaze a path from the ghetto to Broadway and Hollywood. Donald Bogle’s “Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters” chronicles her journey and the creation of an icon of American entertainment.
While a teenager in Philadelphia, Waters (1896-1977) drew notice as a down-and-dirty blues singer. She gradually cleaned up her image and became one of the first black women to record her music and perform on the radio. Later, she reinvented herself again as a dramatic actress on stage, film and television.
For many years racism kept her from a wider audience — complaints from Southern listeners ended her national radio show in 1934 — and racism slowed her efforts to broaden her material. She accepted as a fact of life that blacks wouldn’t be admitted to many of the theaters where she performed.
Becoming a star didn’t trump prejudice, not even her own. Waters often said she was most comfortable with “my people,” both socially and as a performer, though she was suspicious of better-educated blacks. She never lost her distrust of whites.
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