The Archive Collection

From the Archives: Billy Graham & Ethel Waters

September 21, 2021


Ethel Waters first stepped foot into a Billy Graham event during his 1957 New York City Crusade at Madison Square Garden. The Crusade was just getting underway and Mr. Graham’s ministry was less than a decade old then. Ethel Waters believed his evangelistic efforts would be a success. Her belief proved to be correct. The Crusade lasted an unbelievable 16 weeks, during which millions heard about the love of Jesus. However, what Waters didn’t anticipate was how the Good News would personally impact her. Waters had initially slipped into the Crusade one night and rededicated her life to Christ. When Cliff Barrows learned she was in the audience, he asked her if she would be willing to do a solo. She agreed. She then joined the choir. She sat anonymously in their midst night after night for the rest of the Crusade.

Born to a 13-year-old single mother in Chester, Pa., Ethel Waters (1896-1977) began her recording career in 1921 with the Black Swan label and continued with Columbia Records in 1925. Through the next decade, she recorded many jazz hits such as, “Am I Blue?,” “Memories of You,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Stormy Weather,” “Heat Wave,” “Dinah” and “Summertime.” Waters’ Broadway resume includes key performances in At Home Abroad, Mamba’s Daughters, Cabin in the Sky and The Member of the Wedding. She went on to reprise her roles in the film versions of the latter two Broadway shows and obtain other film credits as well.

Though she is a decorated performer, for those who are familiar with Billy Graham Crusades, Ethel Waters is known for the moment she stepped out of the choir and sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” This is the song that would become her trademark as she performed it for the last 20 years of her life.

A wooden plaque with brass plate was given to Ethel Waters. It’s inscribed: BILLY GRAHAM SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CRUSADE Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum August 15 – September 8 to ETHEL WATERS in sincere appreciation for your participation in making the Southern California Crusade an outstanding success. To God be the Glory. Signed: Billy Graham Los Angeles, California September 8, 1963.

To see more of Billy Graham’s memorabilia from his friendships with celebrities and world leaders, plan your visit to the Billy Graham Library.

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