Popular music is a vital part of America’s history. By examining the changes in popular music, we can learn more about the changes that have occurred in American culture and society as a whole. Ethel Waters, Ethel Merman, and Dinah Washington are three popular artists that demonstrate changes in society through their music.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977) is one of the most outstanding African American popular artists of her time. Like many artists, Waters began her career on the vaudeville stage before she achieved national fame in the 1920’s. In the 1930’s she made Broadway history by becoming the first African American to receive equal wages with her white co-stars for her role in As Thousands Cheer. Waters continued to have a successful career into the 1940’s, and in 1949 received an Academy Award nomination for her role in Pinky. Because of her immense success during her career, Ethel Waters has remained an important figure of popular music throughout the twentieth century.
Ethel Merman (1908-1984) is another important figure of the Broadway stage. Merman had a very successful career on Broadway and performed leading roles in famous musicals such as, Girl Crazy, Annie Get Your Gun, and Hello Dolly. In 1950 Merman’s success in Broadway was acknowledged when she won a Tony for her work in Call me Madam. In addition to her work on the stage, Ethel Merman also appeared in many movies.
The Postal Service acknowledged Waters and Merman’s contributions to popular music by featuring them on postage stamps. The Ethel Waters and Ethel Merman stamps were issued in New York, New York. The stamps were designed by Cris Payne for the American Music Series: Popular Singers Issue.
Another prominent African American artist of the twentieth century is Dinah Washington (1924-1963). Washington had a versatile voice that allowed her to sing a variety of music genres including gospel, blues, jazz, and pop. Dinah Washington’s successful music career was cut tragically short when she died of an accidental prescription drug overdose in 1963. The music community acknowledged Dinah Washington’s contributions to jazz music in 1996 when she was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame.
The Postal Service honored her by issuing a Dinah Washington stamp. The stamp was issued in Cleveland, Ohio, and was designed by John Berkey for the American Music Series.