Biographer and film historian Bogle (Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, 2005, etc.) returns with an encyclopedic life of Ethel Waters (1896–1977), singer, actress and trailblazer.
The author leaves few stones unturned in this massive but often mesmerizing work. Virtually every character earns at least a paragraph or two of back story, including all backup singers and sidemen on Waters’ recordings and nightclub appearances. Bogle tracks his subject’s life precisely and carefully. As the text progresses, it becomes more and more evident that Waters has so enthralled Bogle that he operates almost like her posthumous press agent. He begins in 1950 as the aging, overweight Waters, her career on a downturn, waits to go out for her first scene in A Member of the Wedding, the role that turned the ignition key for the second major surge of her career (it led to numerous TV and film appearances). Bogle then shifts to Chester, Penn., Waters’ birthplace, and the incredible story commences. Waters’ rise to stardom is a classic rags-to-riches story. She was a frail yet sexy young woman (known in nightclubs as “Sweet Mama Stringbean”) with a voice that, in the author’s view, changed popular music. The author tells us about her heroes (Ma Rainey principal among them), her rivals (whom she often treated ferociously) and her successors (Lena Horne was not a fan). Bogle also frequently defends Waters, who was irascible backstage, on film and TV sets; he finds cultural and biographical explanations, but she was a handful. The author deals delicately with her sexual interests, which included both genders.
A lush and often lyrical valentine to an extraordinarily talented and complicated artist.