Last month, we ran a Retro Record piece on Ethel Waters, her artistic accomplishments, and a sapphic relationship she had during the Harlem Renaissance. As anyone who’s listened to music in the past 30 years can tell you, she’s not the only shining talent in the Waters family tree.
With 12 dance chart-toppers across three decades, “Gypsy Woman” singer Crystal Waters has worked her way to the top of a genre that originated with the LGBTQ+ community — and has had our full support along the way. Through the celebrations and the losses, she’s been showing queer people her “100% Pure Love” at every step.
To this day, you can’t go to the clubs or watch RuPaul’s Drag Race or even shop at Target without her house prowess making you bop down the aisle.
We sat down with the star to chat about her journey alongside the LGBTQ+ community, her greatest musical joys, and her most recent gift to the gays.
You’ve been in the house music scene for so long, which also means you’ve been around LGBTQ+ communities of color for decades. How have you seen the community grow and change over time?
I remember when I first started, it was mainly the Black and Latino crowds that were in clubs, at the shows, wherever I went. I just remember that it wasn’t cool to be gay back then. It was a real struggle. A lot of them got kicked out of their homes – that’s where the houses started. I remember meeting all the houses back then, and when they got together, it was a real family feeling.
They really took care of each other, the mothers and the fathers. It was something I had never seen before and didn’t know existed. And I’ve seen it go from there to where it is now, where everybody’s out. I always say, a lot of people did not make it. Not by their own choice.
I do a lot of Prides. Now, they want to call them “parties” or “festivals”. I’m like, “Guys, this is about Pride, don’t forget. There were a lot of people who came before you who risked their lives to come out and celebrate themselves being gay and have a parade.”
I used to do the Pride parade in New York. There was always people throwing stuff at us. There were people with signs, “God’s gonna strike you dead” or whatever. But every year, it would get less and less. I remember the year I was with my dancers and there was this one lone old guy with his own sign by himself. [Laughs] Everybody on the float just kind of laughed and pointed at him.
I went through that to where it is now, where it’s really truly celebrated. I just wish some of my friends could have made it to see where it is now.
Have you had any ideas about the community that have had to evolve or grow over time?
No, I’ve never I’ve never been that type of person. I always had gay people growing up. I didn’t know that my Uncle George was… I mean, I knew he was married to a man, but I never put it together. They didn’t bother anybody else.
I think when I first started, the gay community took me in. I was with the dancers, and I always say that the drag queens taught me how to do my makeup back then.
To me, I was a person that was always a little odd. I was really shy. I never could fit in anywhere. So when I got to New York and to that scene, they just kind of took me in and accepted me for who I am. I didn’t have to be something else. Since those days, I have always been a champion. I’ve always been supported by the gay community. It just is what it is.
What would your message for the community be in this moment?
I would just have to say stay strong and be who you are. Don’t let anybody try to change you. Sometimes you gotta go through it by any means necessary. You just gotta stay strong.
I mean, you have to look at how far it’s come compared to when I started, when there was no freedom. It’s gotten better – but you’ve still got a little ways to go. Be yourself, because you’re going to be an inspiration to others, especially those coming behind you.
Other than your biggest hit singles, what music from your catalog are you most proud of?
A couple of jazz songs made it on my second album, some of the not well-known ones. “Storyteller” was one of my favorite songs that I wrote. I enjoy the writing part, playing with lyrics and stuff. Not all of them were worldwide successful, but I still have some lyrics that I’ll go, “Oh, that’s really clever!” [Laughs] So, little things like that.
I’m from a jazz background, and I actually had started a jazz album. Hopefully one day I’ll finish, because that’s something I’m passionate about getting out there before I leave this place.
As far as new music goes, can you tell us about your new music with Robin S.?
I have several releases out now. There’s a song I did with Soul Central that came out a couple months ago now called “Love One Another”. Robin called me and said she loved it, she had to be on it. I said, “Well, we’re getting ready to do remixes.” So we brought her up here and I recorded her. One of the remixes is both of us together, but there’s another one where she’s kind of the lead. It’s really cool.
How long have you two known each other? Do you remember how and when you first made that connection?
We met after I was out in ‘91, and I think her song came out in ‘93-’94. I remember meeting her on tour, sitting in the back of a bus. It wasn’t until recently – now that we’ve gotten older – that we’ve actually been able to sit down and talk to each other. All the egos are gone now.
When we were young, there were some little diva battles, but I’m not even gonna name names. [Laughs] I think now we’ve all come to our senses. I always tell them, “You know, we’re in this together. When they hear my name, they think of you and vice versa, so we gotta play our cards together to make it all work.” That’s where we are now.
As lovely as it is to see the collaboration and the camaraderie, we also do love a little bit of the egos.
A little diva-ness! [Laughs]
I have another song with David Anthony called “2B Luv”. We have two big remixes: one by David Morales and the other by Todd Terry. These are the kings of house, so I never thought I’d be working with them again and have them on the same project! It was really, really a blessing for me to have that happen.
I also have a song with Flashmob that just came out called “I Gave You the World”. I’m working on an album. I said I wanted to do one more album, and I sat down with my friends Spin and Tommy and said, “We’re going to do it.” I’ve written two songs so far. We’ve got a lot of tracks in, so as fast as I can write ‘em. I’d like to get it done by the summer. That’s the plan.
So we may be seeing a release within the year?
I hope so. You know, the whole thing with spending a year to do an album doesn’t make sense anymore, because things only last three months these days. So I don’t want to waste too much time putting an album out to have it only be valid for three months. You know what I’m saying? I’d like to get it done. Maybe a nice eight/nine-track album and get it out by the summer.
What do you enjoy most about doing your show I Am House Radio?
I love it because I get to hear all the new music. I get to hear who all the new people are in the scene and who’s really doing well. Usually I’d go out to clubs and listen, but with the pandemic, I couldn’t go out. I even reach out to some of the producers that I really like, and it’s amazing.
It’s also amazing that there’s a lot of bad stuff out there. [Laughs] There’s a lot of junk. Some months I’m like, “You guys got anything else? I gotta pull up an hour.”
I’ve gotten better at being a host, too. That’s brand new for me, speaking and talking as a host. I’m enjoying it, I’m getting it down. Now, in my third year, I’m finally getting the swing of it.
Do you have any favorite discoveries you’ve made throughout your time on the show?
If I could remember the names, I would tell you. I just did the podcast – I do the monthly one for iTunes and then I have Sirius XM weekly. It’s a lot of songs coming through. I can’t think of any off-hand, but I do get to catch a lot of bootlegs that shouldn’t be released!
I have a pick of the month; each month I do the one that really catches my ear. I make sure I announce that song and the writers.
What is it that you enjoy most about songwriting?
It’s just being creative. Everybody needs to have a creative outlet, and it’s one that I’m good at. It’s very satisfying when I’m done. It’s the process, you know? I always start and I hate everything, but when you stick with it and the self-discipline, you get a little good feeling about yourself.
And I know I’m good at it. This is what I’m supposed to do. When I try not to do it, I’m miserable. I always say I’m gonna move to something else, but it’s not happening.
Are there any songwriters right now that you’re really fired up about?
I love Tems. I love the way she writes; it gets you emotionally attached. I haven’t been inspired like that since, like, Prince. I really like that.
I’m also amazed at Taylor Swift and the team that she has around her; their consistency is really amazing. We have a lot of artists that keep coming out with stuff, but the quality that she has… Not that I would write songs like her, but I’m just amazed at the quality and the effort that’s put into her stuff. I have to sit back and say, “Okay, all right!”
And the production behind it is just… I wish I could steal some of it. She has a team that knows what they’re doing.
I’m sure you can get Jack Antonoff’s number!
Oh sure, I’ll call him up tomorrow. [Laughs] I got $20,000, or probably $150,000, sitting around.
Were you and Ethel close when you were growing up?
I was too young, I think. My mom told me a story that there was a rift in the family. My grandfather was [Ethel’s] brother, and they weren’t speaking, so we weren’t allowed to communicate with them. My mother always said, “He almost took me backstage to her show, but that was as close as I got.”
Past the entertainer, past the chart-topping hits, is there anything that you wish the listeners understood more about you?
I think I gave that up a long time ago. I think in the beginning, I used to want people to know how serious I was about my lyrics, and that I’m usually saying more than the surface. I like double entendres and things like that. I used to really, really wish people would understand that. Now? I don’t care what people think at this point.
It’s not that I don’t care, but it’s nothing that’s really… I think by this point that if you follow me, you know that I really love what I’m doing. I love house music. I love writing a song. I like giving a little bit more than I’m asked for. So I think if you listen hard enough, you’ll get that.
Before you go, is there anything else you’d like to plug with us?
I have a skincare line for men called BoyFace. I just relaunched it after I had to shut down because of the pandemic. I had some really special ingredients in it that we just couldn’t get [during the pandemic], but it’s relaunched! I have an under-eye serum for puffiness and dark circles that works really, really well. You can check it all out at boyfaceme.com.
When I started out I was going to do GirlFace, but I ended up testing it out on my dancers since that’s all I had around me and I wanted to make sure it worked, so most of the people who tested it were gay. So me and my team thought, ‘Why don’t we just make it for my fan base?’
There you go, feeding the community once again.
For more Crystal Waters excellence, check out her special DJ guest mix on SiriusXM Utopia on March 15th in celebration of Women’s History Month!
Miss Waters, be sure to tell the govner what your genetalia looks like before performing in The Swamp State. There may be teens on that dance floor and it could get messy.
BTW I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Crystal Waters is legendary. But Ms. Waters, please consider boycotting Florida or urging a mass protest if you do perform there!
I get what your’e saying, but one only needs to look to Paul Simon’s tours and time in South Africa. He became part of the change.
MASS PROTEST! YES! DON’T FUKK WITH US, FELLAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I have fond memories of hanging with Ms. Waters and her sister, Stephanie, back in the day in DC at the late L & F. I also remember sitting on the stage when she performed at Capital Pride. She’s alovely and down-to-earth person.
I love to see a 61 y/o man or woman this pulled together.