Her mother married Norman Howard, and Waters went by that name — and others — before deciding to use her biological father's surname. She worked as a maid at a young age, dropped out of high school as a teenager, according to Encyclopedia.com, and started singing professionally at age 17, billing herself as "Sweet Mama Stringbean."
Waters always loved singing and for years toured on the vaudeville circuit and later began recording on the Cardinal and Black Swan labels.
She appeared in theater and became known for her renditions of songs such as 1933's "Stormy Weather." Over the years, she performed with greats like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
Waters toured with the Billy Graham Crusade and talked about rededicating her life to God in 1957 at the old Madison Square Garden, saying: "I, Ethel Waters, a 380-pound decrepit old lady, rededicated her life to Jesus Christ." During a 1975 performance — before launching into "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" — she said: "Boy, because he lives, just look at me now. I'm telling you, I'm modeling for him. I look good and I know it."
She died Sept. 1, 1977, in California.