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Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters Hardcover – February 8, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
In this powerful biography, Bogle recovers the rich fullness of singer Ethel Waters's life (1896–1977). In vivid though often exhausting detail, Bogle traces Waters's rise from the poverty of her surroundings in Chester, Pa., through her early musical successes in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s to her film and Broadway career and her later religious conversion as her health declined. Waters started singing very early, and worked the clubs and chitlin' circuit with ribald and sexy songs; she soon made her name as both black and white audiences flocked to hear her sing songs such as "Am I Blue?," "Stormy Weather," and "Shake That Thing" in Harlem clubs. As Bogle notes, Waters's records helped to create a new record-buying public, and she ushered in a style of popular singing that later singers like Diana Ross would try to imitate. Bogle chronicles her intimate relationships with both men and women as well as her stormy relationships with other artists, like Josephine Baker and Lena Horne. Bogle's thorough and unflinchingly honest look at Waters's brilliant and flawed life will undoubtedly be the definitive biography of this great woman. (Feb.)
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*Starred Review* Waters� career spanned seven decades, from vaudeville to Harlem nightclubs, from Broadway to Hollywood. Bogle, author of several biographies of black entertainers, including the best-selling Dorothy Dandridge (1997), offers a penetrating look at a woman of massive talent and determination. Waters grew up mostly in Chester, Pennsylvania, adopting a wandering life that suited her desire to flee her difficult past, poverty, hard family life, and early, failed marriage. In the early 1920s, she was among the first black performers in Harlem whom white patrons came to see. She began recording in the 1920s and �30s and moved from blues to pop; among her hits were �Stormy Weather� and �Heat Wave.� Her talent for singing, dancing, and acting led her to cross paths with Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Count Basie, Josephine Baker, Elia Kazan, Darryl F. Zanuck, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, and others. Her best-known roles were in the film The Member of the Wedding and the play Mamba�s Daughters.Bogle chronicles her career ups and downs and her tempestuous relationships with a series of husbands and lovers, male and female, as she struggled with racism and sexism and her own complex personality as a woman known to be both profane and pious. --Vanessa Bush
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His account of her "lost years" is uneven. Life was particularly difficult for Waters from 1944 on, and while Bogle touches on the reasons why - her "temperamental" behavior, her strange reluctance to keep up with the times musically - he doesn't really go into any depth about it. Waters could easily have performed the pop music of the 40's and kept herself relevant, holding her own against Ella Fitzgerald, etc., yet she kept on performing her old hits. Bogle never offers an explanation for this. He simply accepts the fact that she did so and lists the same old songs for every show she she did. This becomes monotonous, and while it gives the reader a sense of why Waters' popularity dwindled (audiences of the time probably wanted to hear something new from her, too), it would have been more interesting if he'd done some research to find out why she became stuck in that groove.
Lastly, there are a lot of sloppy little errors all throughout book. Bogle frequently mentions Waters' "official" and actual ages, but at some points he gets these wrong. His research about Waters' contemporary rivals (Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey) is cursory at best; he makes misstatements about her younger rivals (Billie Holiday, for example), and he seems to think that Lena Horne, whom he mentions frequently, was a much bigger "star" than she actually was.
All in all, a disappointment.
How far is too far? I'm not crazy about Lena Horne, but Waters was vicious to Horne on the set of Stormy Weather, terrorizing the younger soubrette and provoking a huge backlash among studio executives, effectively crippling her own career. Waters was twice the singer Horne was, but she wound up steaming when Horne robbed her of her signature song, "Stormy Weather," effectively making it her own number. Yes, I'd be annoyed too, but Waters just came off looking bad. Waters' talent was vast, and she could act the great tragic parts too, making an enormous personal success out of a brutish part in the Heywards' Mamba's Daughters (1939) and later, in the fifties, creating indelible portrayals in new plays by Carson McCullers and Thornton Wilder. (In a rare slipup, biographer Bogle seems not to have read Wilder's "Bernice," one of the dramatist's masterpieces, and only mentions it in passing, as though it were nothing.)
Otherwise, he is well up to the challenge, and has used his vast knowledge of black show business to present us with a dazzling panoply of perspectives on Waters, even those who have been dead for years and years. Sometimes he is a little too measured; I can't figure out if he really believes that Clifton Webb and Marilyn Miller treated Waters shabbily during the run of AS THOUSANDS CHEER. He's so evenhanded I found myself doubting the hotheaded Waters. C'mon, Bogle, come out and say it--were they (and Bea Lillie, and Eleanor Powell, in a later show) guilty or innocent? Bogle makes me want to run and see Waters' portrayal of Dilsey in the film version of Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY, released in 1959.... but really, he should have just used the same title for his life of Ethel Waters, for if anyone was rich with sound, and loud with fury, it was she.
of the Wedding." When, later in my life, I read the novel I learned that there were several characters involved in the story. For my mother there was only Berniece Sadie Brown, the character played by Ethel Waters. She always recounted Miss Waters' singing of "His Eye is on the Sparrow." I knew Miss Waters as older woman who sang wonderfully on various variety shows As Donald Bogle makes clear in "Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters" there was a lot more to Waters than what my mother and I knew.
Waters had a career that spanned decades and she is credited with influencing the style of subsequent popular singers and being the first black woman to innovate and perform in many different venues The huge grandmotherly woman I remember began as a tall, slinky figure who sang sexy suggestive songs like "Shake That Thing." She starred in the movies and on Broadway. She ended her career with television guest shots and as a participant in Billy Graham's televised crusades. Though the image she presented to the world was very pious her personal life included several younger `husbands' and a number of female lovers. Her profanity filled rages during the filming of "Cabin in the Sky" probably cost her a more significant career in Hollywood.
Bogle, who has written many books about black entertainers paints an entertaining portrait of black show business in the Walters era. As new figures are introduced into her orbit, we get mini portraits of them It's in this way that I found out that Billy Graham contributed to Martin Luther King's bail money when he was in jail. This is a wonderful portrait of a important figure who many of my younger friends have forgotten. My one disappointment with the Kindle version? There are no pictures