from the Billy Graham Library

Then Sings My Soul – Ethel Waters

July 11, 2020

Ethel Waters was already a noted Broadway star, singer, and actress before she met Billy Graham during his 1957 Crusade in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. At that event, Ethel rededicated her life to Christ and began singing as a guest at Billy Graham Crusades.

Billy Graham and Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters was born October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. She had a very difficult childhood and later said, “I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.” Despite her difficult upbringing, she went on to set records as a career singer and actress. She recorded two singles in 1921, making her only the fifth black woman in history to make a record. Three of her songs from the 1920’s and 1930’s were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 1933, Ethel landed a lead role in the Broadway musical, As Thousands Cheer, becoming the first African American to receive equal billing status and achieving the status of the highest paid performer on Broadway. In 1939, while starring in the matriarch role of Hagar in the play, Mamba’s Daughters, Ethel became the first African American to star in a dramatic play.

Ethel Waters and Ruth Bell Graham

Ethel also wowed audiences on big and small screens alike. Ethel became the first African American to star in her own television show. She was nominated for an Academy Award in 1949 for her role in the film Pinky and was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1962 for a guest appearance on the television series Route 66. In 1958, Ethel starred in The Heart is a Rebel, a film of Billy Graham’s production ministry, World Wide Pictures.

Ethel Waters speaks during the 1970 Billy Graham Crusade in Knoxville, Tenn.

Ethel was a featured soloist at Billy Graham Crusades for almost 20 years. She was known for her beautiful rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” which was her signature song and the title of her autobiography. Billy Graham said of her, “Ethel Waters was one of the most unforgettable characters I ever knew. She was a superstar not only on stage and screen, but in her personal religious faith.”

Ethel Waters is featured in the latest special exhibit at the Billy Graham Library, “Then Sings My Soul.” Among the items on display, guests can see a program from the play Mamba’s Daughters, as well as an LP record featuring “His Eye is On the Sparrow.”

To find out more about the special exhibit, click here.

Leave a Comment

  1. Vivian Brown

    I used to love hearing Ethel Waters sing.
    My favorite song that she used to sing was, His Eye is On the Sparrow.
    What a voice!!! and such a sweet, sweet spirit.
    We need more of her in this world today.

  2. Linda Robson

    No one like her. She WAS/IS the best ever.
    What a woman. !! What a voice !!
    Having fun with Jesus ! Sure deserves it. Showed us how to live a JESUS life.
    Love her.

  3. Vickie

    What JOY filled my soul truly as I read about Ethel Waters and her special gifts God blessed her with! The picture of her with Rev Graham is priceless and so is the fact that her gift of song came full circle around and then blessed hundreds of thousands as she sang for Billy Graham Crusades! I’m definetly going to be looking to see if I can find online The Heart is a Rebel movie. Thank you & God Bless each & everyone of you Franklin & your entire family!🙏🏻♥️🎚

  4. Sharon Hessler

    Thank you for including Ethel Waters material at your library. She overcame much in her walk on this earth but she was still a very courageous person and you could see how she loved God when she sang.

  5. Doug & Dorothy Honn

    Loved this woman and her happiness was contagious. She just lit up when singing about Jesus. We need some of that happiness in this pandemic. Thanks for reminding us of Ethel Waters

  6. Roxanne

    At the end of her speech at a Billy Graham crusade, Ethel Waters flashed that big smile of hers, and said to the audience,
    ” See you in Heaven. I’ll be lookin for ya ! ”
    I wrote it down and everytime I see it, It makes me smile.

  7. Susan Mitchell

    Ethel Waters was so special in “Member of the Wedding” when she sang “His Eye Is On Tne Sparrow”. She brought tears to my eyes as she sang this special song. She was such a great role model in this movie as well in life. God blessed her as He did us with her amazing life. My mother saw her sing at one of Dr. Billy Graham’s crusades.

  8. Linda Schoentube

    My husband was saved at that crusade and loved Ethel Waters and the hymn, His Eye is on the Sparrow. He said no one else, ever, could sing it like Ethel Waters.

  9. Linda Itterly

    My mother had this album and I loved
    listening to Ethel Waters sing growing up! God blessed her with a Heavenly voice! I can hear her voice in my memory even now! No one can come close to it today! She Loved Jesus and loved people!! I would love to see this exhibit!!