After years of trying to reflect on the unique ways female vocalists have contributed to popular music I’ve finally made THE LIST. Women have been on my mind of late for various reasons. Viewing the recent music documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (about Nina Simone), reading John Szwed’s excellent book Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, and my excitement learning about the recent reappearance of country singer K.T. Oslin after 14 years of semi-retirement all stirred me to compile a list of what I define as the 100 Most Influential Female Vocalists in 20th century popular music (I know it sounds pretentious but at least it’s not in ALL CAPS).
Why recognize female singers and not other genders? Female musicians have traditionally struggled to earn proper respect and recognition as musicians and artists in the music industry, which has operated in a very patriarchal manner since the 1910s. Countless female singers have shared their struggles to receive proper credit as writers, arrangers, and producers, and to be understood as something other than sex symbols or "difficult" divas. Though progress has been made, especially in the late 1960s-1970s when feminist activism and organizing spurred important cultural shifts, such as the "women's music" genre, women still struggle against social and industrial biases. Though there are plenty of "100 Greatest..." type lists in circulation my list differs by focusing on influence rather than a vague "greatness," and for its overall scope. There are singers represented from the 1920s to the present; singers who have performed in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish; as well as folk singers, gospel singers, jazz singers, pop singers, R&B singers, and singers who defy classification.
I selected a variety of singers based on three criteria:
1-Influence: Their influence on other singers within their respective genres including genre innovations.
2-Impact: Their impact beyond their specific genre particularly the scope of their influence across genre, generation, gender, and other such factors.
3-Talent: Unique, intangible qualities singers possess including vocal, compositional, arranging, and /or producing talents.
Lists of this scope are fun and yet incredibly difficult because it’s easy for me to second guess myself or compromise for fear of overlooking someone important. My objective is for these notions to circulate and to generate additional recommendations and thoughts from readers.
A few notes:
- This list is restricted to singers who gained notoriety for their recording careers in the 20th century (1900-99) thus you won’t find Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Duffy, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Janelle Monae, P!nk, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Amy Winehouse, and numerous other singers of their vintage listed. I believe 15+ years is a reasonable amount of time to gauge a singer’s impact. Within a few more years we will have more information to assess these singers within the larger history.
- The list is restricted to singers within the popular idiom so classical and opera singers are not included. Though for the record Marian Anderson, Maria Callas, Renee Fleming, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, and Beverly Sills are some of the more notable singers who have captured the public's attention.
- The reason there are 100+ singers is because groups compound the numbers. For example, ABBA technically features two women (and two men) so the entry is singular but the list recognizes both Agnetha and Anni-Frid. This is similar for the Carter Family, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, and other groups.
- Several singers I excluded are more notable for historical posterity than a profound impact on the way singers approach music today which affected Annette Hanshaw, Ruth Etting, Libby Holman, and Sophie Tucker. They are important but more as a collective look at 1910-30s singing than as individuals. Similarly, because I am mapping the influence of careers I declined to include several singers who are more important for a few songs or an influential album than they are for consistent careers. This affected my consideration of Celine Dion, Lauryn Hill, Cyndi Lauper, Alanis Morissette, and Grace Slick, among others.
- Making lists requires sacrifices and discipline. There are multiple singers who standout within their respective genres (i.e. Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Tanya Tucker in country music; Betty LaVette in R&B music; Jennifer Warnes in pop) who I ultimately excluded since this list aims to address a broader scope of influence.
- Finally, I have biases and preferences just like any respectable (and honest) writer. I consider figures like Cher and Britney Spears more media phenomena and celebrities than singers regardless of their record sales or iconicity. Punk has limited recognition especially since vocal excellence is not essential to the genre by definition. Rap and hip-hop are present but in small doses.
If there is someone you feel is missing, that meets the criteria (i.e. began recording between 1900-99), send me the name and a brief paragraph long rationale to firstname.lastname@example.org. If I receive enough interesting entries I will publish these in a future column.
100-ish Most Influential Female Vocalists in 20th century popular music (arranged in alphabetical order by first names from ABBA to Whitney):
ABBA/Agnetha Faltskog/Anni-Frid Lyngstad: Swedish pop group ABBA was the most popular music group of the ‘70s worldwide and it’s easy to understand why: at their best they produce irresistible spirited pop. ABBA, led by the harmonies of Agnetha and Anni-Frid, was a versatile singles machine defined by catchy melodies, tight harmonies, and slick production values. From 1974-82 they mastered the art of the catchy pop song as well as any pop group thanks to hits like “Waterloo,” “S.O.S.” “Dancing Queen,” “Fernando,” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” among others. ABBA experienced a revival in the early 1990s thanks to the popularity of the Gold compilation and their songs were prominently featured in films like Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. In 1999 Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus translated the group’s indelible hits into the popular musical Mamma Mia! which was a hit in London and Broadway and became a hit film. From pop-folk, to buoyant pop, to disco, to adult contemporary power ballads the group excelled influencing various pop groups including Sweden’s own Roxette and Ace of Base.
Adelaide Hall: Hall was a recording artist, dancer and actress who performed from the late 1920s-1937 in Harlem before moving to London and becoming an international star. Hall is significant for recording several classic sides including the sensual almost guttural “Creole Love Call” with the Ellington Orchestra and debuting “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Hall was a pivotal bridge between theatrical singing and the instrumental quality of jazz oriented singing. She had a great balance for the era avoiding the overly dramatic excesses of most singing actresses while drawing effectively on the musical meat. The result is a very complete singer conversant with pop, blues and jazz technique.
Anita Baker: In the mid-1980s Baker pioneered the retro-nuevo soul sound. Rather than adhering to R&B trends toward dance pop Baker presented a sensual adult music informed by the passion of gospel and the fluidity of jazz. 1986’s Rapture, featuring classics like “Sweet Love” and “Caught Up in the Rapture,” established a new standard for romantic balladry that continues to influence generations of vocalists.
Annie Ross: Ross was a pioneer of vocalese who set a standard for jazz cool as the female voice of jazz’s most popular group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, and a soloist. Classic recordings like “Twisted” showcased her wit and dexterity expertly. Her swinging interpretive flair has influenced singers as varied as Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Ann Hampton Callaway, and the Manhattan Transfer’s Cheryl Bentyne and Janis Siegel.
Aretha Franklin: Universally recognized as the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was the most successful female translator of gospel technique, jazz swing, and blues pathos in post-60s popular music. After beginning her career as a teenaged gospel singer she recorded a series a jazz, pop, and blues inflected recordings at Columbia. But she achieved her greatest level of artistic expression and reached her broadest audience through her seminal recordings at Atlantic Records. Songs like “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” “Ain’t No Way,” and “Think” solidified her as the definitive soul singer. Franklin continued recording impactful hits from the ‘70s onward ranging from “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” to “A Rose is Still a Rose.” She was the first women inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is one of the most widely recognized cultural forces of the late 20th and early 21st century.
Barbra Streisand: Streisand is the definitive singing actress of the post-60s era. Possessing a beautiful voice, potent technique, and a highly distinctive style, as well as legendary stage and film roles, she is the most successful female vocalist of the 20th century. After making her mark on Broadway as Miss Marmelstein (in You Can Get it Wholesale) she signed a successful recording career with Columbia where she has recorded accomplished suites of standards, showtunes, and pop songs in her inimitable style. Her parallel successes as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl onstage and onscreen intensified her stardom. After winning an Oscar for her performance she became a popular comedic and dramatic film actress while simultaneously gaining stature for multiple innovative television specials. In the ‘70s Streisand revised her image recording more contemporary music and becoming more involved in film production. She eventually became a director helming Yentl, The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces. As a singer Streisand’s range of triumphs include “The Way We Were,” “Evergreen,” “A Woman in Love” and the modern classic 1985’s The Broadway Album. Streisand maintains a loyal audience and is the only performer to achieve chart topping albums every decade of her career since the ‘60s, and to remain a popular and acclaimed concert attraction. Streisand has influenced almost every major female pop singer in her wake and continues to thrive as a seasoned vocalist and dynamic performer.
Bessie Smith: Smith earned the title “Empress of the Blues” by virtue of a level of talent, versatility and personality that exceeded virtually any blues singer during the “classic blues” era of the 1910s-30s. Smith developed her skills in a minstrel troupe, with guidance from Ma Rainey, before securing a recording contract with Okeh Records, the race records division of Columbia Records, and recording numerous million-selling sides. Smith was a well-rounded performer with a strong, distinctive voice, a talent for songwriting and the musicianship to record with some of the finest jazz and blues musicians of the time including Louis Armstrong who plays on her classic version of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” Some of her most notable signature tunes including Smith-penned songs like “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon,” and “Young Woman’s Blues,” alongside interpretations of “Downhearted Blues,” “Empty Bed Blues,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Listening to these recordings which showcase Smith’s immense charm as a lyrical interpreter and astute choices in phrasing and rhythm, it’s easy to understand why greats like Billie Holiday cited Smith as an influence. It also illuminates why Dinah Washington and LaVern Baker recorded full Smith tribute albums and singers like Nina Simone, Ruth Brown, Maria Muldaur, Bobby Short and Cleo Laine have recorded Smith signatures throughout their careers. Her songs can be sexy, tragic, funny—sometimes in the same song, and still sound fresh. Smith’s life is captured in Chris Albertson’s acclaimed 1970 biography; its popularity also inspired reissues of her music. Smith’s life has also inspired the 2015 HBO TV movie Bessie starring Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique.
Bette Midler: Midler is an original who modernized cabaret music by interpreting a range of torch songs, showtunes, girl group pop, swing, blues, and R&B in a unique style laced with humor, irony, bawdiness and genuine pathos. At the start of her recording career Midler was already a seasoned musical theater actress who translated this and other influences into a dynamic live style that has made her a legendary popular performer. Alongside her recording career Midler showcased her dramatic gifts in her award winning roles in The Rose, For the Boys, and Gypsy. Midler has continually evolved her talents recording anthemic ballads in the late ‘80s-early 90s, performing on TV and film, and periodically releasing inspired concept albums
Betty Carter: Carter was one of the most daring and original improvisers in all of jazz from her late 1950s debut through her death in 1998. Inspired by bebop and cool improvisers and notoriously demanding and encouraging of her musicians, she was unafraid to obscure melodies, elongate rhythms and sing with dissonances so long as the interpretation was distinct. After recording for major labels she formed her own label Bet-Car to produce and distribute her music. By the late 1980s she achieved a commercial renaissance, signing with Verve Records and winning a Grammy Award. She is widely understood as one of the true vocal jazz musicians, and her style has influenced generations of jazz singers including Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jeri Brown, Kurt Elling, Dianne Reeves, and Cassandra Wilson.
Billie Holiday: Billie Holiday brought a lyrical intelligence, rhythmic sophistication and emotional depth unprecedented in American popular music. Though primarily associated with jazz she has influenced musicians as disparate as Frank Sinatra, Carmen McRae, Etta James and Cassandra Wilson. Despite her modest voice and a life marked by tragedy, she was a complex woman capable of epic statements of sexual desire, playful flirtation as well as emotional devastation and world weary spirituality. Holiday was directly inspired by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, but had her own subtle improvisational flair embellishing melodies in unprecedented ways. After recording multiple swing-oriented sides with jazz musicians like Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson she went solo recording a series of revered classic for Columbia Records, Commodore Records, Decca, and Verve. Her signature songs like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Strange Fruit,” “Lover Man,” “Don’t Explain,” and “Crazy He Calls Me” are an integral part of the vocal jazz repertoire, and virtually all jazz singers cite her as an influence. She remains an influence on singers, a fashion icon and the inspiration for film, plays, and authors.
Bobbie Gentry: Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Billie Gentry blazed onto the airwaves in 1967 with the elusive hit “Ode to Billie Joe.” Its crisp guitar, languid beat, haunting story and Gentry’s hushed, smoky voice were unlike anything being played on the radio and deservedly made her a star. Her debut earned her a number one single and album, three Grammys and a promising career. She followed this with a series of popular albums and a few hit singles, notably the classic “Fancy” delivered in a swampy country-pop vein throughout the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. Gentry also recorded popular duets with Glen Campbell that endeared her to country music audiences, and was a mainstay in Las Vegas. She also hosted variety shows in the U.S. and Britain before retiring in the mid-1970s. Gentry’s songs have been covered by jazz, pop, and country singers, and her haunting style can be heard in a variety of singers including Rosanne Cash, and Lucinda Williams.
Bonnie Raitt: Bonnie Raitt is a gifted American eclectic whose diverse vocal style and exceptional slide guitar playing draws from blues, rock, soul and pop traditions but cannot be whittled down to a stylistic essence. For years such eclecticism made her a favorite of critics and musicians but she struggled. But in the late 1980s her newfound sobriety, the right batch of songs, a savvy producer and the disciplined harnessing of her immense talent finally garnered the commercial and artistic recognition she had long deserved on 1989’s Grammy winner Nick of Time. Reinvigorated she followed it up with several excellent sets of mature adult oriented pop/rock in the 1990s including the acclaimed albums Luck of the Draw, Longing in their Hearts, and Fundamental.
Boswell Sisters: Born and raised in New Orleans the Boswell Sisters (Connee, Martha and Helvetia) were the first successful jazz vocal group. Each of the sisters was musically gifted with multi-instrumental capability. The Sisters arranged their own material and were renowned for their intricate harmonies and rhythmic sophistication. The Sisters often sang in their own coded language by using non-sensical syllables and unusual vocal blends impossible to duplicate. The sisters are pioneers whose influence is evident in groups like Lambert Hendricks & Ross, The Andrews Sisters, The Pointer Sisters and The Manhattan Transfer.
Brenda Lee: One of the most versatile singers in modern pop, Lee began recording as a teen in the early ‘50s. She achieved success over several decades by managing to soar in all of her incarnations simultaneously recording teen pop, love songs and torch ballads, rockabilly and contemporary country. Lee’s success in pop, rock, and country has yielded multiple classic recordings ranging from “Jambalaya on the Bayou” to “I’m Sorry” to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Carly Simon: Simon is one of the most notable voices of the early ‘70s singer-songwriter era. As the writer of anthems like “That’s The Way I Always Heard it Should Be,” “Anticipation,” “You’re So Vain,” and “You Belong to Me” she successfully translated her personal perspective on desire, gender politics, and modern life into an accessible sound. She expanded on this foundation in the 1980s blossoming into a gifted composer of soundtrack scores and themes, including the Oscar-winning “Let the River Run.” Simon has also stretched herself on various projects recording several standards albums, writing an operetta and writing children’s books.
Carmen McRae: Singer, pianist and songwriter McRae emerged as a solo leader in the early 1950s with a series of accomplished albums recorded for Decca Records. Though her parents wanted her to study music for a career as a classical pianist she was deeply inspired by Billie Holiday and drawn to jazz. After being hired to play piano in nightclubs she was asked to sing which led to career that spanned from the early 1950s through 1990. McRae was a vocal minimalist with a subtle interpretive style. A superb musician she had a sophisticated grasp of lyrics, superb phrasing, and imaginative rhythmic and harmonic instincts. McRae recorded a wide range of albums for various labels throughout her career including the highly acclaimed 1972 concert album The Great American Songbook. McRae’s incisive approach has inspired many fellow vocalists such as Carol Sloane and Vanessa Rubin who have recorded album-length tributes to her artistry.
Carole King: After defining the sound of 1950s and 1960s teen pop and girl group music as a composer King embraced on a solo career as a singer and songwriter. After a few tentative stabs at a solo career King recorded one of the most popular, accomplished and influential sets of folk-influenced pop on Tapestry. In addition to capturing the emotional tenor of her generation as it was maturing into the 30s King wrote a durable set of melodies that have been widely adapted across genre and generation. King continued releasing popular albums throughout the ‘70s and persisted as a songwriter collaborating with artists as varied as Mariah Carey and Semisonic. Her naturalist melodies and eloquent lyrical approach has helped her become one of the defining composers of the post-50s popular repertoire.
Carter Family: The roots of American country can be traced to The Carter Family. A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and their sister in law Maybelle combined soaring vocal harmonies, a wide ranging repertoire and an innovative instrumental string-band style that shaped bluegrass, country, and folk beginning in the 1930s. A.P. collected British and Appalachian folk songs, and various songs in the public domain and (controversially) made them Carter copyrights including “Wildwood Flower,” “Wabash Cannonball,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” among others. The group performed together until 1939. Maybelle formed a singing group with her three daughters including June Carter (later June Carter Cash). June’s daughter Carlene (from June’s marriage to Carl Smith) began recording in the late 1970s. A wide range of performers have adapted songs and style from the Carter family including Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Kay Starr.
Cassandra Wilson: Cassandra Wilson is one of the leading vocalists of a jazz-oriented style most accurately described as blues-based folk music that uses the language of jazz improvisation to illuminate modern pop and classic blues songs. Wilson began as a vocalist with the jazz funk group M-Base but as a soloist recorded numerous sets where she began to develop and refine a style influenced by the spare interpretive sound of singers like Betty Carter, Roberta Flack, Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone. She sings in a measured, almost drone like style with a languor that allows songs to float and saunter in a controlled, sensual fashion. 1993’s Blue Light Til’ Dawn was her breakthrough album; she uses jazz tools—improvisation and imagination, to interpret a wide range of songs, including blues, standards, rock era pop songs, and original compositions. Each is inflected by her blue musicality notably a rich, dark voice and moody vibrant arrangements with stirring chants, African-based percussion and rhythmic tension. Wilson is one of the most innovative contemporary jazz singers in her repertoire and arrangements. She has influenced peers like Dianne Reeves, and a younger generation of vocalists including Norah Jones and Lizz Wright.
Celia Cruz: Revered as “The Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz is a vocal inspiration to multiple generations of singers. Born in Havana, Cuba she studied music at the National Conservatory of Music which provided the roots for her command of Latin Jazz, Salsa, Mambo and other tropical Latin styles. She began as a vocalist with the dance band La Sonora Matancera where she perfected her rhythmic and harmonic command of soneos and conveyed her vibrant visual style. After leaving Cuba in 1960 and relocating to the U.S. she eventually recorded as a solo artist. From the mid-1960s onward Cruz had a highly varied career collaborating with musicians like percussionist Tito Puente and Fania Records founder Johnny Pacheo, touring with the Fania All-Stars, appearing in multiple films including The Mambo Kings and The Perez Family, and seamlessly translating her Afro-Cuban music into modern forms. Marc Anthony, Rubén Blades, Gloria Estefan, and Olga Tañón are examples of musicians she influenced. Up until her passing in 2003 she maintained artistic and commercial relevance.
Chaka Khan: Khan’s is a complex vocal artist whose powerful reed like voice has enabled her to soar as a singer of funk inflected R&B and as a sultry interpreter of jazz. Khan was the first lady of ‘70s funk via her influential recordings with the band Rufus notably “Tell Me Something Good,” and “Sweet Thing.” As a solo vocalist she scored with anthems like “I’m Every Woman,” the R&B and rap collaboration “I Feel For You,” and the ballad “Through the Fire.” Khan was also one of the few singers of her generation to actively integrate jazz, especially bebop, into her recordings including accomplished album tracks like her Grammy winning “Be Bop Medley” (on 1983's Chaka Khan) and album length sets of standards that set her apart from peers. Her siren-like sound has inspired a variety of singers including Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and Erykah Badu.
Chrissie Hynde/The Pretenders: Chrissie Hynde became one of rock’s most dynamic voices as in the 1980s lead singer, guitarist and songwriter in The Pretenders. Influenced by R&B, rock ‘n’ roll as well as punk Hynde defined the band’s unique flavor with her brilliant anthem “Brass in Pocket” a perfect mix of rock, soul, and uncompromised femininity. The band delivered on its promise throughout the decade thanks to songs like “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” Despite setbacks and personnel changes Hynde anchored the group well into the 1990s with songs like “I’ll Stand by You.” Hynde, who has also recorded solo albums, has influenced various singers including female rockers like Sheryl Crow, Shirley Manson, Alanis Morrissette, and Patti Smyth.
Darlene Love: As detailed in 2013’s Oscar winning documentary film 20 Feet from Stardom Darlene Love was one of the finest singers of the late ‘50s and ‘60s whether as a background singer, or as lead singer in various girl groups. Love has a soulful, yearning sound, cultivated while singing in her church choir as a child that made her a favorite singer in the music industry. Producer Phil Spector featured her and her group The Blossoms, on records by The Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and on the 1963 holiday classic “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” though she had to sue Spector to receive proper credit for many of her contributions. Love has also recorded with Sam Cooke, Jan & Dean, Elvis, Dionne Warwick and other acts on various classic hits. After several lean years in the ‘70s she appeared on Broadway, made multiple film appearances, and starred in a one woman show in New York in the 1980s and has worked steadily ever since. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 with a loving tribute from one of her followers, Bette Midler.
Debbie Harry/Blondie: Debbie Harry and her partner Chris Stein were the main thrust behind Blondie which grew out of the ‘70s New York punk scene into major pop success. Funny, sexy, rocking, and poppy Blondie was among the savviest and most entertaining of their peers to cross over and maintain their essential punk appeal. As lead singer Harry drew from girl group femininity, rock attitude, and punk energy to craft her persona. The group’s recordings for Chrysalis in the mid-1970s established them commercially and 1978’s Parallel Lines fully crossed them over thanks to the dance-rock-disco classic “Heart of Glass” featuring Harry’s droll almost tongue-in-cheek vocals style. Their biggest hits and most significant hits ranging from the girl group-ish “Dreaming” to the experimental “rap” of “Rapture” were as fun and polished as punk music gets. In the early 80s they took a hiatus because of Stein’s illness and Harry released a series of idiosyncratic pop records. The group reunited in 1998 and has released albums periodically; Harry has also delved into acting and jazz-oriented singing with various artists including the Jazz Passengers. Harry’s sound and style has influenced artists across the spectrum including Madonna, Sonic Youth, and Liz Phair.
Diana Ross & The Supremes: The original Supremes (Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson) were Motown’s commercial aces in the early ‘60s and from 1964-70 they became rock’s most iconic and popular girl group. The combination of Motown’s irresistibly catchy songs, largely written and produced by in-house writer-producers Holland-Dozier-Holland, with their memorable hooks, incessant rhythms, and tight arrangements, lead vocalist Diana Ross’s sensual nasal sound and the group’s fine harmonies and glamorous image were integral to their success. Ross built from the group’s momentum in the 1970s and became one of the era’s major solo divas. Her penchant for melodramatic ballads like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Touch Me in the Morning,” her burgeoning film career (including an Oscar nominated turn in Lady Sings the Blues) and smart adaptations to the times (i.e. 1976’s disco smash “Love Hangover”) made her the blueprint for future divas including Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Toni Braxton. Ross maintained her popularity well into the early 1990s and has been embraced as a legend and icon.
Dinah Washington: Inspired by her early years singing gospel music, the innovations of jazz singers like Billie Holiday, and “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith—Dinah Washington was the definitive jazz oriented blues singer. Known for her crisp enunciation, tart tone, sly sense of humor and commanding style she was a seminal influence on R&B and jazz singing inspiring devotees like Aretha Franklin, Diane Schuur, Dakota Staton, and Nancy Wilson. Born in the Alabama and raised in Chicago she learned to sing and play instruments in her church, and sang in a gospel singing group. Eventually she branched out as a soloist, initially recording blues tunes for the independent Keynote label before recording at Mercury Records where she recorded commercial pop, blues, R&B and jazz standards that solidified her as one of the best singers of the late 1940s-early 1960s. She was a major figure in R&B and jazz commercially, but crossed over to pop with her luscious rendition of “What a Difference a Day Makes.” She signed with Roulette Records in 1962 where she recorded suites of blues, pop songs, and standards before passing away from an accidental mix of alcohol and diet pills.
Dionne Warwick: Dionne Warwick, who developed her chops singing in church and more formally at the Hart School of Music, offered something different from most pop and soul singers of the 1960s. Mixing the elegant phrasing and cool tone of vocal stylists like Nancy Wilson with the emotional immediacy and pop accessibility of gospel, R&B, and girl group singers she was a new archetype—a pop-soul stylist. Warwick began as a gospel singer in the Drunkard Sisters and performed background vocals before establishing a solo career. Warwick has had two careers: Her first career at Scepter Records, cast her in the role as the premier interpreter of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s finest mini-masterpieces. Their complex chords, unusual time signatures, melodic intricacies and clever lyrics represented almost a separate genre from pop or R&B and she was the quintessential voice. From 1963’s “Don’t Make Me Over” through 1970’s “Make it Easy on Yourself,” she recorded 22 top 40 songs mostly from the Bacharach-David team. In the second phase, the 1970s she adapted her style to pop and R&B trends including such key hits as “Then Came You” (recorded with The Spinners) and at Arista Records, “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and “Déjà Vu.” In the '80s she appeared regularly on the charts, but her most notable recording was her collaboration with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder on “That’s What Friends are For” a soulful recording which also raised money for AIDS research. Warwick has had diverse recording projects in the 1990s and 2000s including Brazilian pop, standards, gospel, and Christmas music. She has influenced peers like Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Dusty Springfield and Jackie DeShannon, and younger singers such as Swing Out Sister and Everything But the Girl's Tracy Thorn.
Dixie Chicks: The Dixie Chicks made country cool by modernizing it through a smart blending of its core harmonic and instrumental textures with a fresh rock-fueled contemporary perspective. After struggling for almost a decade in country music to establish an identity the original Dixie Chicks (fiddler Martie Maguire and banjoist Emily Robison) found their stride with the addition of vocalist Natalie Maines on 1998’s Wide Open Spaces. The Chicks’ unique combo of instrumental acumen, solid songwriting, precise harmonies and likable personalities gelled and made them mainstream country stars and regular Grammy winners. They grew more acclaimed and popular with each release—including 1999’s chart-topping Fly, and 2002’s Home. The Chicks are musically and emotionally authentic to themselves on a range of signatures including the tongue-in-cheek “Goodbye Earl,” the sassy anthems “Sin Wagon” and “Ready to Run,” and wistful heartache tunes like “Without You” and “Travelin’ Soldier.” They are also adept interpreters capable of translating Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” into country colors and capturing the essence of Bonnie Raitt’s blues tune “Give It Up or Let Me Go” with unique country spunk. When Maines spoke out against the Iraq War and critiqued President Bush in 2003 country radio and various pundits turned on the Chicks amidst a sold-out world tour and 2004’s live release Worldwide Live. Refusing to back down Maines and company became unwilling spokespeople but held their ground. In 2006 they returned in a big way with the defiant rock-flavored Taking the Long Way. As documented in Barbara Koppel’s documentary Shut Up and Sing, they willfully abandoned the expectations of country music and released their inner philosophers and rockers via collaborating with producer Rick Rubin and Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson, among others. The result is an impressive and often stunning meditation on the plight of renegades and outsiders who eschew communal conventions and take risks. The album was an acclaimed popular hit that earned them multiple Grammies for exploring the boundaries of country, folk, and rock.
Dolly Parton: Dolly Parton is one of country music’s premier composers and singers. Her sweet soprano, earthy songwriting, and voluptuous image have made her a multimedia icon with five decades of relevance. Born and raised in modest conditions in rural Tennessee she successfully translated her roots into a career. She began as a solo singer with the tongue-in-cheek “Dumb Blonde” which was followed by a series of hits and a parallel stint as co-host of The Porter Wagoner Show. Throughout the ‘70s songs like “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” “To Daddy,” “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Will Always Love You” were interpreted by other singers establishing her as a respected songwriter. Beginning in the late ‘70s she crossed over to broader audiences thanks to hits like “Here You Come Again” and her breakthrough performance in the film 9 to 5, which spawned the Oscar nominated title track. Parton spent the ‘80s and ‘90s building on her success opening an amusement park, acting on TV and film, collaborating with artists like Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt, and Tammy Wynette. In the late 90s-mid 2000s she released a series of acclaimed records with a strong bluegrass flavor and has continued to grow earning an Oscar nomination for “Traveling Thru,” (from Transamerica) writing the Broadway musical 9 to 5, and remaining a popular performer. Her sound has influenced vocalists like Alison Krauss and Leann Womack, and her songs continue to attract new interpreters.
Donna Summer: Donna Summer’s powerful voice and savvy musical instincts helped her become the “Queen of Disco” and move beyond the genre into a rewarding career. Summer developed her musical gifts singing in church as a child and eventually ventured into musical theatre. After recording the 17 minute “Love to Love You Baby,” featuring a series of orgasmic moans over a minimal beat, with producer Giorgio Moroder she became a notable pop figure. Summer followed its success with a series of themed albums propelled by innovative songs like the pulsating “I Feel Love,” and gained momentum via the Oscar winning ballad “Last Dance,” her hit version of “Macarthur Park” and the classic disco album Bad Girls. In the early ‘80s Summer mellowed her sound, becoming a born again Christian and transitioning away from disco toward pop and R&B. She scored with pop anthems like “On the Radio,” “The Wanderer,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “This Time I Know It’s For Real.” Echoes of her sound could also be heard in Laura Branigan, Irene Cara, and Madonna among others. Summer maintained her stature as the original queen of dance pop well into in the 1990s and 2000s. She passed away in 2012 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Dusty Springfield: British singing legend Dusty Springfield (born Mary O’Brien) was an eclectic and accomplished musician whose work has aged gracefully and influenced a wide range of singers. Springfield began her career with the female group The Lana Sisters, then sang in a folk band with her brother in The Springfields and branched into solo singing in 1964. One of the major voices of the British Invasion, she was as genuine eclectic and masterful synthesizer of diverse styles. She began as a girl-group style singer and R&B stylist, and grew into a versatile interpreter of power ballads, rock, singer-songwriter, R&B and eventually dance and new wave material. In the 60s Springfield recorded typically eclectic albums mixing disparate commercial styles. Some of her defining hits included peppy pop songs “I Only Wanna be With you,” “Stay Awhile,” and “Wishin’ and Hopin’” as well as emotive ballads like “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and “Who Can I Turn To.” On her beloved classic Dusty in Memphis she scored a top 10 with the sultry “Son of a Preacher Man” and continued modernizing her sound in the 1970s recording with Philly Soul producers Gamble and Huff as well as singer-songwriter material from writers like Janis Ian and Melissa Manchester. In the late 1980s she had a comeback thanks to her seductive vocal on the Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” The Boys also produced her 1990 album Reputation which she followed with 1995’s pop set A Very Fine Love before passing from breast cancer. Various singers of her generation, including Aretha Franklin and Bobbie Gentry, recorded her signature songs. British vocalists like Duffy, Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, and Amy Winehouse are indebted to Springfield and her songs have inspired numerous American singers such as country singer Shelby Lynne who also recorded a 2008 album of Springfield songs.
Edith Piaf: French diva Piaf, known as “The Little Sparrow” or the “Sparrow of Paris” is one of the seminal voices in torch and ballad singing thanks to emotive, mellifluent versions of chansons like “La Vie En Rose,” “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien,” and “Hymne A L’Armour.” Born in Paris she had a difficult childhood she escaped through her singing. Piaf began recording in 1936 and her songs project both a frailty and resilience that has led to many adaptations of her repertoire across languages and cultures, most notably “La Vie en Rose.” Her life was haunted by a troubled marriage, substance abuse and other personal problems, but like Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, her personal struggles imbue her music with poignancy.
Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald is known as the “First Lady of Song” because she--more than any 20th century vocalist--best translated the musical values of jazz into a musical style and cultural persona which captivated hardcore jazz fans and was accessible to pop music listeners. She began her career recording swing tunes, novelty songs, and occasionally ballads with the Chick Webb Orchestra, and various collaborators, from the mid-30s through the mid-40s at Decca Records. In the 1940s she was one of the first swing era singers to absorb bebop into her vocabulary and mainstream the style solidifying her as both a formidable big band singer and modern vocalist. After recording several fine 10” 8-song LPs at Decca she was signed to Verve Records where her manager Norman Granz capitalized on her vast talent by having her record a wide range of material in jazz combos and orchestral settings, and booking her in some of the world’s premier concert venues. From the mid-1950s through the late 1960s she was America’s most beloved jazz singer thanks to her influential “Songbook” albums, a steady concert schedule and various media appearances. In the late 1960s Fitzgerald recorded for various labels and attempted to adapt to rock incorporating various contemporary songs with limited commercial success and critical response. She still maintained a rigorous performing schedule charming audiences with her virtuosity and warmth; in the early 70s she signed to Granz’s label Pablo where she recorded more Songbook albums and collaborated with various jazz luminaries including the Count Basie Orchestra and guitar virtuoso Joe Pass. Though Fitzgerald lost some of her vocal polish and control she maintained her formidable rhythmic and improvisational skill, and recorded until the late 80s. Fitzgerald passed in 1996 and has constantly been saluted by jazz and pop singers through tribute albums and concerts.
Ella Mae Morse: Morse is a generally unheralded singer who bridged big band swing with R&B forecasting the development of rock ‘n’ roll. From 1942-51 she recorded brilliant sides ("Cow Cow Boogie," "Mr Five by Five," "Money Honey," "House of Blue Lights") that are arguably proto-rock in their rhythmic drive and risqué subject matter. Morse has a salty voice full of vocal color and could bounce from novelty songs to boogie-woogie to swing seamlessly. Morse’s synthesis of styles transcended the formulas typical for female pop singers of her time making her a trailblazer for pop eclecticism.
Emmylou Harris: Harris developed her interest in country music from the late Gram Parsons and translated these experiences into a dynamic career in country and folk music that ultimately defies categories. Harris possesses a sweet soprano she has employed effectively on a variety of songs by authors as varied as Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix, the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Donna Summer, and Lucinda Williams. Central to her style is her appreciation of classic styles and contemporary modes. She was a major player in the country music market until the early 1990s when she began experimenting with various producers, arrangers, and styles that ultimately pushed her toward a more roots and Americana oriented sound that has helped her maintain her reputation as a gifted performer with a high level of substance and artistic integrity.
Erykah Badu: Badu was at the vanguard of a new movement of iconoclastic young black musicians who synthesized their love of jazz, ‘70s soul, and hip-hop into the neo-soul genre. On her influential debut Baduizm Badu’s fluid phrasing and flowing melodies told intimate stories about love, family, and spirituality written in a language unique to Badu. Her bohemian visual style, gentle wit, and eclectic style signified a new era of iconoclasm within black pop. Badu continues crafting winsome music reflecting her unique vision.
Ethel Waters: Actress and singer Ethel Waters is one of the seminal figures of American popular culture whose talent and refinement redefined the role of blacks in the entertainment industry, and was crucial to the mainstreaming of blues and jazz elements into pop music. Waters began her career as a vaudeville performer in the 1910s-20s. In the '30s she established herself as a staple of New York performing at the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall which catalyzed a film career (i.e. Cabin in the Sky), a short-lived TV career and a one-woman Broadway show. Waters wrote two biographies, and toured with Billy Graham in the ‘60s and '70s, before passing in 1977. Waters was adept at blues, jazz and pop singing. Her smooth phrasing, clear articulation and dramatic interpretive style distinguished her from other classic blues singers of the '20s, making her one of the first black crossover “pop” vocalists. Waters recorded early and definitive versions of numerous pop standards songs including 1925’s “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Dinah,” 1929’s “Am I Blue?,” 1932’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” 1933’s “Stormy Weather,” and 1940’s “Cabin in the Sky.” She significant influenced swing era singers including Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Lee Wiley and Connee Boswell. Waters recorded with numerous big bands (including the Duke Ellington Orchestra) and for various labels during her pop career. She is regularly included in scholarly books on American singing and was the subject of Donald Bogle’s 2011 biography Heat Wave.
Etta James: Etta James’s stellar career spanned from the commercial emergence of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll through the 21st century. Possessing a gritty voice, impressive range and great showmanship James is best known as a blues singer but she is too versatile to be reduced to one genre. In the 50s she established herself with sassy R&B sides like “W-O-M-A-N” and “Roll with Me Henry” at Modern Records. At Chess Records, James got the songs and arrangements that put her on the map as a major singer. Her finest album at Chess, At Last! is a classic featuring the epic emotional discovery of the title track, her sexy take on “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” and “Tell Mama” among others. James adapted well to numerous environments and styles during her Chess tenure including soul, funk, country and the singer songwriter pop. After leaving Chess she recorded for several labels hitting her stride in the late 80s when she recorded a series of meaty blues and soul albums for Island Records, Private Music, and RCA. She also branched into album length sets of jazz and pop standards winning her first Grammy for 1994’s Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday. As she outlined in her autobiography Rage to Survive she struggled with self-acceptance, abusive relationships and drug addiction throughout her life but music grounded her and enabled her to serve as an important touchstone for generations of listeners until her death in 2012.
Fleetwood Mac/Christine McVie/Stevie Nicks: As writers and singers McVie and Nicks were the defining female voices of Fleetwood Mac. Nicks’s ethereal sensual persona and McVie’s mellow melodically rich songwriting and piano playing gave the group a wide palette of emotional and tonal colors. 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and 1977’s Rumours are two of the defining albums of the mid-to-late 1970s and McVie and Nicks’s contributions are central to the depth running through both of these classic albums. Both singers had successful solo careers with Nicks achieving iconicity through an idiosyncratic gypsy persona and McVie through a sleek soft rock approach. Well after achieving immense fame in the mid-70s the group has soldiered on into the 2010s gaining new admirers for the group’s impressive repertoire.
Gladys Knight: The soulful, gospel-inspired singing of Knight and the precise harmonies of the Pips, and their ability to adapt to changing production styles made them one of the most enduring groups of the rock era. After recording for independent labels, including hits like “Every Beat of My Heart,” “Letter Full of Tears,” and “Giving Up” they found a home at Motown. There they fully crossed over with 14 top 40 hits but achieved legendary status with the urgent “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “If I Were Your Woman,” and the tender “Neither One of Us.” There is a soulfulness and maturity to their singing, and clarity to Motown producer Norman Whitfield’s tight arrangements, that distinguished their records from typical Motown teen pop to timeless statements of love. The group switched over to Buddah in the 1970s where the next phase of their career took off. There they recorded soul epics like “Midnight Train” and “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” that stood out. Knight’s soaring alto is the cornerstone of these hits. In the late 1980s after three decades of success Knight went solo recording sleek R&B albums, gospel music and jazz standards, and making numerous guest appearances. She remains one of the most definitive voices in popular music influencing the soulful rasp of Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Millie Jackson, Alicia Keys, Chaka Khan, Angie Stone, and Joss Stone among others.
Gloria Estefan: The Miami Sound Machine’s 1985 hit “Conga” infused mainstream pop with a memorable slice of Cuban percussion that distinguished them instantly. In addition to authoring percussive Caribbean flavored dance tunes their lead singer Estefan was a skillful writer of ballads like "Words Get in the Way" and "Coming Out of the Dark" that were staples of pop radio from the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. After establishing herself as a force in English pop she also recorded a series of highly accomplished Spanish language sets, including the award winning sets Mi Tierra (1993) and Abriendo Puertas (1995), that showcased her musical prowess and versatility making her the most successful bilingual performer in U.S. pop music and a genuine international sensation.
Heart: Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson began as an AOR band with a solid guitar sound and a credible snark. A female fronted commercial rock band was a novelty in the 1970s and they came well-equipped having absorbed technique and attitude from rockers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. The combination of Nancy’s fierce playing, Ann’s tough vocals and some genuinely fresh material, especially the AOR classics “Barracuda” and “Magic Man” solidified their place in late ‘70s/early ‘80s rock. From 1976-80 songs like “Dreamboat Annie” and “Little Queen” infused rock with female perspectives in an era when only a handful of women (i.e. Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry) received commercial attention on rock radio. They lost their focus in the 80s but by the mid-1980s they reversed their commercial decline shifting from meaty rock to more polished, melodic sound courtesy of ace radio fare like the ethereal ballad “These Dreams,” the hook-laden anthems “Never” and “What About Love,” and rockers like “If Looks Could Kill” and “Nothin’ at All.” by retooling their image for MTV and singing a barrage of commercially astute pop/rock songs that gave them new life on radio, TV and record stores. They sustained a lusty image and power ballad-heavy sound well into the early 1990s when they still retained relevance. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the sisters have returned to concerts and recorded more folk-rock flavored material on independent labels.
Irma Thomas: Louisiana native Irma Thomas is the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”—an R&B legend whose soulful recordings, earthy personality and dynamic concerts are synonymous with the great city. Though she is best known in the Southern U.S. she has influenced singers like Otis Redding, Tracy Nelson, Marcia Ball, The Rolling Stones, Etta James and Linda Ronstadt. Thomas originally recorded “Time is On My Side,” (covered by the Rolling Stones); “Ruler of My Heart,” (changed to “Pain in My Heart” by Redding and also recorded by Nelson and Ronstadt); It’s Raining (covered by Lou Ann Barton and Jennifer Warnes); and wrote “I Wish Someone Would Care” (later recorded by James and Nelson among others) yet has rarely received recognition as a soul pioneer. Thomas began recording for Minit Records in 1958, switched to Imperial in the '60s and made a few obscure recordings in the '70s before fading commercially. In 1986 Rounder Records signed Thomas who made some of the finest albums of her career focusing on R&B and blues material in various formats including the live album Live! Simply the Best, a collaboration with Ball and Nelson on 1998’s Sing It! and the elegant piano and voice album Simply Grand. In 2006 she won a Grammy for Contemporary Blues Album for After the Rain.
Ivie Anderson: Anderson is best known for her 1932 definitive version of the Ellington signature “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” However, her link to Ellington is deeper than any other popular singer and her influence on big band singing and vocal jazz are deeply underrated. Anderson recorded with various swing orchestras from the early 30s through the mid-40s before her death in 1949. She is best known for her definitive Ellington jazz anthems including “Thing,” “I Got it Bad,” and “Mood Indigo.” Anderson possessed a modest but clear voice which she deployed with leanness and efficiency that epitomized swing. Her earthy tone and natural swing influenced other jazz-oriented vocalists including Connee Boswell, Lee Wiley, and Lena Horne.
Jackie DeShannon: Before singer-songwriters were in vogue in the ‘70s was De Shannon was a prolific songwriter and a successful recording artist. DeShannon, who possessed a husky soulful voice, had a natural love for many styles which shaped her writing. In addition to composing rock and R&B classics like “When You Walk in the Room,” “Needles and Pins,” and “Breakaway” DeShannon wrote and sang “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” interpreted Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s anthem “What the World Needs Now is Love” and wrote and recorded the original “Bette Davis Eyes” which became a decade defining hit for Kim Carnes in 1981. DeShannon is also notable for being one of rock’s earliest female producers and one of the first rock singers to record albums of standards.
Janis Joplin: Inspired by Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton and rock ‘n’ roll, Joplin created an emotionally raw, visceral vocal sound with unusual force. Joplin cultivated her style singing with the Big Bother and Holding Company, a San Francisco based psychedelic blues-rock band. Joplin made her initial mark delivering a series of dynamic performances at the Monterey Pop Festival. Her appearance led to the band’s signing with Columbia Records. After releasing one album, most notable for her thundering version of “Piece of My Heart,” she went solo. 1969’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama and 1971’s Pearl featured Joplin at her most powerful (“Try”) and vulnerable (“Me and Bobby McGee”). She died of a heroin overdose in 1970 at 27. Joplin’s sound established an archetype for rock singing heard in hard rock and heavy metal, and especially influential to singers like Pat Benatar, Melissa Etheridge, Joan Jett, and other female rockers.
Jo Stafford: Jo Stafford’s lovely vocal tone and precise pitch helped her become the most popular female vocalist of the 1940s. Stafford studied music as a child and sang with her sisters before recording professionally with the successful Pied Pipers vocal group. She achieved great commercial success at Capitol Records in the 1940s as a soloist singing a variety of songs including hits like “Scarlet Ribbons” and “Candy.” Her Columbia Records hits, often arranged by her husband Paul Weston, covered the spectrum from pop to country including “You Belong to Me,” “Make Love to Me,” and “Jambalaya on the Bayou.” She returned to Capitol in the ‘50s recording multiple genre albums of folk, jazz, and blues songs. After recording one album for Reprise she essentially retired from recording, recording occasionally with Weston in the comedy duo Darlene and Jonathan Edwards, and reissuing music on her and Weston’s Corinthian Records label. Stafford’s repertoire is widely covered, and various singers, including Ann Hampton Callaway and Anne Murray have noted her influence and recorded songs associated with Stafford.
Joan Armatrading: One of the more eclectic and versatile singer-songwriters to emerge in the '70s Armatrading, born in St. Kitts, gained fame in the early '80s with a set of popular rock, folk and reggae inflected albums. Critically respected and influential to singer songwriters like Tracy Chapman and India.Arie, Armatrading is notable for her often choked singing and pointed lyrics. Some of her classics include Willow,” “I Love it When You Call Me Names,” and “Drop the Pilot.” In addition to folk inflected rock and pop songs Armatrading has also devoted some of her more recent recordings to writing and performing electric blues in her spirited style.
Joan Baez: Musician, activist, and folk legend Baez’s powerful soprano and impassioned singing made her a national star in the early ‘60s. After beginning her career as an innovative contemporary interpreter of traditional repertoire she became increasingly involved in civil rights activism in the mid-60s including singing at the March on Washington. Baez also shifted toward interpreting contemporary writers like her friend Bob Dylan, and her music evolved with the times incorporating rock, country, and pop influences but still remaining folk at its core. She has recorded sporadically since the 1980s but remains an important influence in the folk and pop community.
Joan Jett: After cutting her teeth in all-female punk outfit The Runaways, Jett embarked on a formidable solo career in the 1980s. Inspired by rock ‘n’ roll, glam and punk rock Jett was something of a trailblazer—a leather jacketed rock ‘n’ roller with a clear and assertive identity and an ear for songs that fit her personae. Jett achieved her greatest success in the early to mid 1980s with snarling songs like “Bad Reputation,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” and the anthemic hit “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll.” She regularly churned out albums every few years and periodically scored with a range of material including a rock take on “Everyday People” and her last big hit the metal anthem “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” She has continued to stretch herself through collaborating with her riot grrrl disciples and even performing on Broadway.
Joni Mitchell: As a composer, musician, and vocalist Mitchell became the archetypal contemporary singer-songwriter by infusing folk music with unusual melodicism, harmonic sophistication, and narrative intimacy. Mitchell was a moderately successful performing artist in the late 1960s, and many interpreters covered songs like “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning.” But in the 1970s her classic albums Blue and Court and Spark established a blueprint for modern folk music that transcended genre. Mitchell was a restless artist whose subsequent albums The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Mingus revealed a penchant for experimentation with structure and texture that stood out from most of her peers. During the 1980s and 1990s Mitchell maintained her experimental approach to pop and in the 2000s she expanded her interests to recording popular standards in lush orchestral settings. Mitchell’s songs are regularly interpreted by her admirers across genre. Within jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, vocalists Ian Shaw and Tierney Sutton have all recorded highly accomplished Mitchell tributes showcasing the versatility and appeal of her artistry.
Judy Collins: Judy Collins’s ethereal soprano is one of the most gorgeous voices to emerge in mid-1960s popular folk music. The classically trained Collins brought approached folk music, including traditional as well as new material by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, with a refined delicacy that brought out the songs’ tenderness and power. In addition to popularizing material by these emerging writers her sound also informed the early recordings of younger singers like Jennifer Warnes and Linda Ronstadt. Collins has dedicated her career to exploring a wide range of songs championing songs by writers as disparate as Stephen Sondheim, Jacques Brel, and Bob Dylan. She has maintained her instrument and remains a popular concert artist and cabaret performer.
Judy Garland: Icon, actress, singer and virtual goddess Judy Garland is one of the quintessential popular figures of the 20th century. Through her film roles and musical performances she established herself as the definitive singing actress of her time. Few singers can rival her catalog of classic signature songs including “Over the Rainbow,” “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” “The Man that Got Away” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Though she was largely associated with musicals she was also a popular recording artist who had hit records on the Decca and Capitol labels, including her chart-topping Grammy winning live album Judy at Carnegie Hall. Garland was born into showbiz and as she grew from a child actress to an adult she became notable as a tragic diva whose raw talent and intensity cloaked an immense and ultimately consuming vulnerability that eventually ravaged the fragile, resonant diva.
k. d. lang: lang brought a burst of humor, energy, and edge to country in the late ‘80s thanks to her big voice, androgynous appearance, and tongue-in-cheek humor. After releasing an independent set and a mildly popular 1987 country-punk album Angel with a Lariat, 1988’s Shadowland, produced by countrypolitan producer Owen Bradley, solidified her as a serious artist by showcasing her powerful voice on country classics and sleek neo-country torch material as well as standards like “Black Coffee.” Her Grammy winning follow-up Absolute Torch and Twang showcased her songwriting and solidified her country persona even further. In 1992 she took a left turn on the modern torch classic Ingénue a smoldering pop set featuring her Grammy winning hit “Constant Craving” which was followed by the sleek and sensual All You Can Eat. lang was one of the first openly lesbian singers in the industry and integrated her sexuality seamlessly into her music. In the late 1990s-2000s she focused on interpretive singing, collaborating with Tony Bennett multiple times, before returning to pop and rock-oriented albums.
K. T. Oslin: As a songwriter Oslin revolutionized country music by writing from a distinctly female perspective on varied matters like sex, family, and aging in classic songs like “80’s Ladies” and “Hold Me.” Before recording country music Oslin was a seasoned Broadway performer and actress. Though several singers recorded her songs in the ‘80s including Sissy Spacek, Gail Davies, and The Judds, she actually began her musical career in her 40s beyond the age of most typical country stars. Oslin’s smart songs stood out, and she complemented her records through bringing intelligence, wit, and glamour to her performances. Oslin retreated from recording for health reasons then came back in 1996 with an eclectic cover album followed five years later with a fresh set of originals and interpretations. She is semi-retired but performs occasionally.
Karen Carpenter: Karen Carpenter’s velvet voice and subtle emotional shading made her one of the defining balladeers of her time. Ballads like "(They Long to Be) Close to You" "We;ve Only Just Begun," and "Superstar" were signatures of early '70s soft rock. After years of being dismissed as a mere purveyor of easily listening music she gradually gained respect and recognition from peers and critics as a gifted interpreter capable of highly affecting performances. Her death from anorexia nervosa in 1983 added poignancy and subtext to her emotive performing style.
Kate Bush: British singer and composer Kate Bush builds from the fluid melodicism and lyrical mysticism of predecessors like Laura Nyro and Rickie Lee Jones to create her dramatic, sweeping, and unpredictable romantic style. Bush achieved great success in Britain in the late 1970s before crossing over in the U.S. with the 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill” and her tender duet with Peter Gabriel on “Don’t Give Up” Listeners were stunned by her rich timbre and the song’s luscious production values hallmarks she established on her earlier work. Outside of her solo career Bush has developed film projects as well as written for various soundtracks. Though sometimes regarded as a cult artist Bush has influenced various performers notably Tori Amos, Paula Cole, and Sinead O’Connor. Her work has also been performed regularly by other singers including R&B crooner Maxwell and avant-garde vocalist Theo Bleckmann whose 2012 album Hello Earth!-The Music of Kate Bush celebrates Bush’s songwriting.
Kay Starr: Starr was one of the most successful jazz-oriented popular vocalists of the late 1940s-early 1960s. Raised in Oklahoma she sings everything in a hearty, throaty Southern style including classic blues, swing, country, and pop tunes. After touring with various big bands she scored a series of hits at Capitol Records, most notably “Wheel of Fortune.” From the mid-to-late 1950s at RCA Records she released several excellent albums and had her biggest hit with the lighthearted “Rock and Roll Waltz.” By the time she returned to Capitol in 1959 she focused more on albums resulting in several accomplished jazz sets that showcased the influence of Count Basie style swing on her style and her gift for torch singing. Starr recorded pop and country at Capitol, collaborated on an album with Count Basie in 1968 and made several albums for the GNP label in the 1970s. Starr’s robust soulful sound has impacted various singers including Patsy Cline, Timi Yuro, and Diane Schuur.
Koko Taylor: Koko Taylor established herself as the queen of Chicago blues thanks to the thrilling records she recorded at Chess Records from 1963-1975. Her signature sound is an emphatic delivery characterized by a controlled guttural charge similar to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s squall. Whether she’s singing in double entendres (“Wang Dang Doodle”), putting a lover on notice ( Willie Dixon’s “Whatever I Am You Made Me,” “29 Ways”), declaring her love (“Love Me”) or simply singing her heart out in pain ( her modern spin on the standard “Blue Prelude”) she sings with fierce emotional intelligence and gives her all vocally. In 1975 Taylor switched to Alligator Records where she recorded for the duration of her career, before her death in 2009. Taylor maintained her fire, humor, intelligence and vocal power. A variety of vocalists including ‘60s R&B influenced rock singers like Janis Joplin and Tracy Nelson, and contemporary blues singer Shemekia Copland have been touched by Taylor’s approach to the blues.
Laura Nyro: Nyro instantly distinguished herself in the late’ 60s as one of pop music’s most original composers. She composed serpentine melodies with unusual harmonies, odd time signatures and cryptic lyrics that defied predictability. Her powerful voice and impassioned vocal style reflected the influence of doo-wop, R&B, girl groups and gospel on Nyro. These qualities also made her songs highly adaptable by a wide range of performers including the Fifth Dimension, Blood Sweat & Tears, Three Dog Night, and Barbra Streisand. Though Nyro was never a major commercial seller over time her sound has influenced performers like Todd Rundgren, Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Bush, and Tori Amos, and her talents have been recognized on multiple tribute albums.
LaVern Baker: Baker was a major voice in 50s R&B when it first crossed over from the black market to pop. Recording for Atlantic throughout the 1950s through the early 1960s her career was mostly characterized by commercial R&B numbers like “Tweedlee Dee” and the more mature “Soul on Fire” and “I Cried a Tear.” She was one of the label’s mainstays alongside Ruth Brown. The blues was an important but somewhat buried influence in her career that gradually surfaced over time. In addition to recording jukebox fare she also recorded strong albums including an excellent 1958 tribute to Bessie Smith and a gospel album. She recorded less frequently after the ‘60s but came back in the 1980s recording blues-oriented material and performing in the Broadway musical Black & Blue. Later in her career she was honored for her pioneering role in 1950s pop including a 1990 induction into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and a 1991 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. She passed away in 1996.
Lena Horne: Actress, singer, activist and personality Horne wore many hats in a career that spanned the five decades beginning with mid-40s. More of a song stylist than a pure singer her smooth voice, sexy persona, and versatility have yielded several signature songs including “Stormy Weather” and “Love Me or Leave Me.” Horne paid her dues in the Cotton Club, through various big bands, and on Broadway and gained national fame for her appearances in MGM musicals. From 1941-58 she was one of RCA Victor’s most popular artists, and fine jazz-oriented recording artist, recording a slew of classic standards in big band and orchestral settings. Horne recorded prolifically in the 60s and early ‘70s. Many of her albums of the period attempted to modernize her with covers of 60s hits. Most were unsuccessful artistically and commercially. In the 70s she continued to perform on television and in concerts. Some of her m ore notable roles included her 1978 performances in film version of The Wiz and her 1981 Broadway show and cast album Lena: The Lady and Her Music. In the late 1980s-mid 1990s she released several more jazz oriented albums before retiring from performing and recording.
Linda Ronstadt: Ronstadt has the distinction of pioneering the country-rock sound of the 1970s and taking greater artistic risks than any major pop singer of her era. Growing up in Arizona Ronstadt in a musical family she absorbed a wide range of musical styles. After recording folk with Stone Poneys she embarked on a solo career defined by daring eclecticism which reached its acme on 1974’s brilliant Heart Like a Wheel. After exploring a range of songs within this popular aesthetic she branched out from mainstream pop exploring operetta, musical theater, popular standards, traditional country music, mariachi music, Caribbean pop, and Cajun music. In the process she emerged as one of the most respected interpretive voices in post-60s pop music.
Loretta Lynn: Kentucky-born Lynn married at 13 and while raising kids and doing odd jobs she began writing songs on her guitar. With the encouragement of her husband “Doo” she began publicly performing and grew from a regional favorite to a mainstream national country music artist. Lynn is a honky tonker who specializes in country songs about devoted love and the darker dramatic side of domestic life. She has occasionally turned her eye to broader themes such as her 1970 cover of “The Pill” and the erotic anthem “X Rated.” As the composer of classic country anthems like “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” and “Fist City” Lynn brought a sense of humor, drama and wisdom to country songwriting with a distinct female voice. Alongside Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, she is one of the premier singer-songwriters of country music and a significant influence on generations of female country singers from the late ‘60s onward. Singers as disparate as Shelby Lynne, Gretchen Wilson, and Carrie Underwood are indebted to her injection of sass and sensuality into country music.
Lucinda Williams: After struggling for years to find her voice within the country, blues, and rock milieus Williams hit her stride as a writer and performer on 1988’s Lucinda Williams. Since then her songs have been interpreted by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Emmylou Harris, Patty loveless and Tom Petty among others. Central to her appeal is a clear eye for details and a strong melodic and rhythmic sense that make her songs accessible and appealing yet intelligent and emotionally probing. Williams enjoys a strong critical reputation and respect from her peers as a performer and as a writer.
Ma Rainey: Rainey, known as “Mother of the Blues,” was one of the originators of the “classic blues” genre. A singer, dancer, and comedienne she had a powerful voice and dynamic stage style developed on the minstrel circuit that endeared her to audiences and influenced other singers like Bessie Smith. After performing for decades she recorded a series of classic blues sides at Paramount Records in the 1920s most notably her signatures “See See Rider” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In 1975 Riverside Records reissued her recordings. Rainey’s life was also the subject of August Wilson’s 1985 play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and was brought to life by Mo’Nique in the 2015 HBO film Bessie.
Mabel Mercer: Born to an American black soldier and a Welsh mother, Mabel Mercer was a stage performer and classically trained singer who became the toast of the New York cabaret scene in the 1950s. Her rolled Rs, elegant diction, and masterful timing enabled her to transform songs by writers like Cole Porter, Bart Howard, and Alec Wilder into compelling mini-dramas that helped her set the standards for intimate singing. Her series of Atlantic Records albums are classic sets that capture her unique nightclub sound. Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett are among those who have noted her influence on their interpretive singing approach.
Madonna: Madonna stirred up 80’s pop music, and pop culture more broadly, by combining appealing pop songcraft with a provocative persona and daring visual style. Though she possesses a modest voice Madonna began her career singing buoyant dance-pop accompanied by energetic videos that featured her trash-glamour fashion sensibility. Throughout the mid-80s songs like “Like a Virgin” and “Papa Don’t Preach” drew in millions of listeners and generated controversy which she relished and challenged by deepening her art with each project. 1989’s Like a Prayer was a landmark reflection on sexuality and spirituality, and 1992’s Erotica, 1994’s Bedtime Stories, and 1998’s Ray of Light each showcased her ability to explore a range of musical concepts coherently. Madonna paralleled her musical career with various artistic forays ranging from the coffee table book SEX to film acting, most notably her performance as Eva Peron in the 1996 film version of Evita. In the 2010s she maintains her iconic stature and has focused her musical interests primarily on European inspired dance-pop.
Mahalia Jackson: Jackson is America’s most renowned gospel artist. Her powerful voice and broad appeal made her the genre’s premier Ambassador. Jackson began recording in the mid-1940s for Apollo Records where she distinguished herself through a soulful, fluid style of phrasing influenced by classic blues singers like Bessie Smith. She gained even greater prominence at Columbia Records recording signatures like “His eye is on the Sparrow,” “In the Upper Room,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Jackson’s style defined modern gospel singing for generations and she mentored many younger singers, including Aretha Franklin. Her range of recording highlights including her triumphant performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and her performance of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” from his Black, Brown and Beige Suite.
Maria Muldaur: Muldaur is one of the most eclectic and accomplished interpreters of American popular music of her generation. Muldaur studied blues, folk, and jazz music as a teenager and young adult, and learned to play fiddle eventually performing with Geoff Muldaur and Pottery Pie. After divorcing Muldaur she began a solo career in 1973 characterized by her sultry voice and amazing flexibility. Her first two albums, which spawned the hits “Midnight at the Oasis,” and “I’m a Woman” featured Muldaur’s freewheeling takes on folk, gospel, R&B, swing and blues tunes, and modern songs by writers like Wendy Waldman and the McGarrigle Sisters—a style she maintained throughout the decade. In the ‘80s she focused on vocal jazz and also delved into multiple forms of “roots” music in the 1990s. Some of her more notable recordings in the 2000s have included an acclaimed trilogy of classic blues albums as well as jazz, folk, and pop sets.
Mariah Carey: Carey instantly caught the ear of listeners on 1990’s “Vision of Love” with her rapturous voice and soaring vocal performance. Her soulful sound, inspired by Minnie Riperton’s soaring soprano and Aretha Franklin’s secular gospel, and her pop savvy made her the most popular singer of the 1990s. As a songwriter, producer, and arranger she crafted highly melodic songs that showcased the contours of her voice and appealed to a wide range audiences. After establishing herself as a pop force she integrated hip-hop elements creating a hip-pop soul style that updated her persona on songs like “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” and refashioned her as a vocal icon for new generations of aspiring singers. 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi featuring the torch ballad “We Belong Together” reasserted her prominence as a contemporary vocalist with multi-generational appeal.
Marion Harris: Marion Harris is a pivotal performer and singer of early 20th century American popular music Her recordings of everything from (dated) minstrel songs to what eventually became pop standards including early classic versions of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “The Man I Love” are important examples of American music prior to jazz. Unlike many singers of her generation rooted in musical theatre Harris is a refined singer with a clear voice, an excellent sense of rhythm and phrasing and a versatile style capable of blues, jazz and pop songs. Harris’ early integration of blues and jazz oriented styles into her pop sound makes her a pivotal voice comparable to Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. Archeophone Record has properly preserved her recording legacy providing scholars and listeners a window into a pioneering voice.
Marion Williams: Marion Williams is a pioneering gospel singer who ranks with Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Reverend James Cleveland and Clara Ward as one of the premier exemplars of the gospel tradition. Williams was a keyboardist and vocalist who possessed a highly flexible voice that absorbed the nuances of black gospel music and preaching, as well as jazz and the blues techniques. Williams began her career as a standout soloist with Clara Ward and the Ward Singers before forming the Stars of Faith gospel group and going solo in the mid-60s. Her finest recordings, including various compilations issued by Shanachie Records and her individual albums for Spirit Feel Records, showcase her amazing gift for imbuing all of her material from the most traditional gospel to songs like Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” with a powerful sacredness.
Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: Thanks to “Heatwave,” “Quicksand,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Jimmy Mack” and “Dancing in the Street” the Vandellas (later Martha & The Vandellas) became second only to The Supremes as Motown’s most dynamic girl group. Led by the salty voice of Reeves and equipped with some of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s most potent material, the group specialized in highly danceable songs with an urgent pulse that captivated the lust and energy of the young listeners Motown targeted. The Vandellas’s songs are regularly covered by other singers but few have captured the spark and drive of their signature recordings.
Mary J. Blige: Mary J. Blige translated her love of soul music and hip-hop into a series of influential hip-hop soul recordings, especially her 1992 debut What's the 411?, which redefined the sound and attitude of modern R&B. Her hearty voice, urban sensibility, and passionate style made her a resonant voice for many listeners especially women. She continues challenging herself as an artist recording with a wide range of collaborators and expanding the boundaries of urban black pop into many different realms.
Memphis Minnie: At a time when women sang the blues and men played them guitarist, singer and writer Memphis Minnie was easily the “Queen” of the country blues. Beginning her career in the late ‘20s her best known songs, include “Me and My Chauffeur” and “In My Girlish Days.” She is also famous for recording numerous duets with husband Kansas City Joe McCoy, Bumble Bee Slim and Little Son Joe. Her music has provided inspiration to rock and blues singers for decades including Phoebe Snow, Maria Muldaur, Lucinda Williams and the women of Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women. Besides being a woman Minnie ultimately distinguished herself from other country blues singers through her clear voice, assertive tone, clean guitar playing, and humorous, often sexy material. In 2012 various artists, including Ruthie Foster, Muldaur, and Bonnie Raitt were featured on the tribute …First Came Memphis Minnie.
Mildred Bailey: Bailey was a pop and jazz pioneer who was the first female singer to travel nationwide with a big band. Her light almost girlish voice, perfect enunciation, and penchant for singing melodies clearly in swinging tempos set a high standard for pop in the late 20s-30s. Though she was influenced by Ethel Waters and Ivie Anderson she herself influenced multiple generations of jazz-oriented singers including Lee Wiley, Maxine Sullivan, Kay Starr, and Maria Muldaur.
Minnie Riperton: Riperton’s supple soprano was one of the most distinctive sounds of the 1970s, most notably on her 1975 hit “Lovin’ You.” Trained operatically but also versed in soul, rock, and gospel Riperton began her career in the ‘60s rock and soul group Rotary Connection. In the early ‘70s she and her husband musician Richard Rudolph developed a “soft soul” sound that showcased her lovely voice on a range of romantic ballads and light funk songs. Beloved by audiences of classic soul, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and became a prominent spokesperson for cancer awareness before her death in 1979. Her dulcet tones and gentle touch informs the singing of various contemporary singers including Mariah Carey, Julia Fordham, and Jill Scott.
Miriam Makeba: Singer, author and anti-apartheid activist Makeba was born in Johannesburg in 1932. She is often referred to as “Mama Africa” and “The Empress of Africa Song” for her powerful singing style and dignified representation of her country and continent. Makeba gained experience singing in South Africa with the Manhattan Brothers and then the Skylarks before performing solo. In the late 1950s she was pivotal in exposing the world community to South African music. She achieved her greatest visibility, and won a Grammy, for her 1959 collaborations with Harry Belafonte at New York’s Village Vanguard, and for her breakthrough hit “Pata Pata.” As her career progressed her activism gave her greater visibility and she increasingly antagonized the South African government which revoked her citizenship. Undeterred, she persisted settling in Guinea and receiving invitations from the UN to address apartheid. As a musician she was active recording albums, performing alongside Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s Graceland tour in the 1980s, touring with Odetta and Nina Simone, writing her autobiography, and performing in her native country after apartheid fell. Makeba passed in 2008.
Nancy Wilson: Wilson is an exemplar of jazz influenced popular singing. Inspired by Dinah Washington and Jimmy Scott, she is known for her creamy voice, nuanced interpretations, and versatility. Wilson’s jazz oriented style helped her become one of Capitol Records’ most consistently popular artists from the late 1950s through the ‘70s when she began integrating more pop and soul music into her repertoire. She remained a viable recording artist mixing pop, jazz and R&B at Columbia Records and won two Vocal Jazz Grammys for her acclaimed sets for MCG Records. Her elegant vocal style has shaped the sound of numerous followers including Regina Belle, Phyllis Hyman, and Dianne Reeves.
Natalie Cole: Cole brought a fresh mix of fire, energy and elegance to pop and R&B music in the mid-70s thanks to exuberant songs like “This Will Be” and lush ballads like “I’ve Got Love on My Mind.” After establishing herself as a major voice in pop-soul and struggling through addiction she re-emerged in the early 1990s as a skilled interpreter of popular standards in orchestral and swing jazz settings. Her blockbuster album Unforgettable with Love acknowledged the influence of her legendary father and opened the door to a series of accomplished jazz albums with occasional forays into contemporary pop.
Nina Simone: A classically trained pianist who only became a singer by chance, Nina Simone is one of pop music’s most singular voices. After recording a luscious jazz album featuring her swinging “Love Me or Leave Me” and her hit version of “I Loves You Porgy” Simone recorded a wide range of songs at Colpix Records and then Phillips. Simone was known for singing pop and swing standards common for the time as well as folk songs, gospel, and pop in other languages. The political climate of the ‘60s inspired her to write topical songs and to involve herself in the civil rights movement. She left Phillips to record a variety of material at RCA in the ‘70s before becoming an ex-patriot and living in various countries and recording for multiple independent labels. In the early ‘90s Simone released A Single Woman, and toured up until her death in 2003. Her soulful blues inflected style has impacted singers across the cultural spectrum ranging from jazz singer Cassandra Wilson to R&B musician Me’shell N’degeocello.
Odetta: Odetta (born Odetta Gordon) was arguably the most iconic female folk musician to emerge in the 1950s. She sang a variety of traditional folk songs, gospel hymns, modern folk songs, and blues bathed in her resonant shimmering timbre, a sound that influenced the ‘60s folk revival and can be heard in the singing of Nina Simone, Tracy Chapman, and Cassandra Wilson. In addition to performing a highly influential repertoire in her distinctive style she was one of the first to record songs by Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s and was also a civil rights activist whose art often reflected her personal and social values.
Pat Benatar: After studying opera for a time Benatar abandoned her studies for a brand of meaty contemporary rock ‘n’ roll that stood out on early to mid -1980s radio. Songs like “Heartbreaker,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “Love is a Battlefield,” and “We Belong” demonstrated her ability to balance rock energy with pop melodicism skillfully. Benatar endures as one of rock’s most notable female icons.
Patsy Cline: The most revered female voice in country music is the soulful sound of Cline. Though she initially aspired to be a honky-tonk singer her lovely voice and refined phrasing were best suited to the lush settings hat defined the Countrypolitan sound. In addition to topping the country charts with torch classics like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy” and “ I Fall to Pieces” she was also a central figure in crossing country music over to a broader pop audience. Virtually all female country singers who followed her have emulated her style, and her influence is widely felt across genre as well. Her style and repertoire has shaped recordings by Kay Starr, Timi Yuro, Linda Ronstadt, k.d. lang, and Leann Rimes among others.
Patti LaBelle: LaBelle set a standard for vocal power and performing dynamism unmatched by any singer of her generation. After serving as the leading voice of The Blue Bells and LaBelle in the ‘60s and ‘70s LaBelle went solo. Since the late 1970s she has accumulated an enduring set of pop-soul classics like “You Are My Friend,” “If Only You Knew,” and “New Attitude” aimed at the heart, the feet and the soul. She is as renowned for her stirring gospel fueled style as she is for her generous spirit and warm rapport with audiences.
Peggy Lee: Lee was one of the most successful jazz-influenced pop singers of the twentieth century. Like Billie holiday she transcended the physical limitations of her voice with her astute rhythmic instincts, deft phrasing, and nuanced lyric interpretations. Lee is an icon of cool sultry vocal understatement. Beginning as a big band singer with Benny Goodman, she transitioned into the solo singer era of the ‘40s with a successful run at Capitol Records from 1947-1952, a stint with Decca from 1952-1956, and a second stint with Capitol through the early 70s. Lee’s 1953 torch song album Black Coffee and Other Delights was one of pop’s first concept albums and she was an early adapter of Latin rhythms and R&B songwriters like Ray Charles. As pop music changed with the influx of rock, soul and singer-songwriter pop Lee adapted better than most of her peers recording contemporary songs in modern settings. Lee recorded for independent labels from the late 1970s through the early 1990s and maintained a busy concert schedule. After years of ill health she passed away in 2002. Performers continue to cover her signature songs including her cover of Little Willie John’s “Fever” and the quirky “Is That All There Is?”
Phoebe Snow: Among the popular singer-songwriters to emerge in the early ‘70s Phoebe Snow was the most gifted vocalist. Shaped by jazz phrasing and gospel fervor she has one of the most fluid voices in popular music which was shown to great effect on originals like “Poetry Man” and interpretations of songs as varied as “Teach Me Tonight” and “Good Times.” In addition to her albums Snow was an in-demand duet partner, background singer, and commercial jingles singer. Snow retreated from the spotlight to take care of her daughter but maintained respect from critics, peers, and fans. Her ethereal style inflects the voices of singers like Randy Crawford, Norah Jones, K.T. Oslin and Diane Schuur, and a variety of singers have covered her songs including Jeanie Bryson, Floetry, Bette Midler, and Queen Latifah,
Queen Latifah/Dana Owens: One of the genuine Renaissance women in popular music Queen Latifah is a multimedia icon who has soared in hip-hop, film musicals, and even jazz oriented pop. She made her initial mark in the late ‘80s in hip-hop becoming the most successful female MC of her time. Her music was accessible and smart with strong Afro-centric and feminist elements. As she reached her commercial peak in the early ‘90s she also became a successful actress starring in the sitcom Living Single, landing her own talk show, in the 1990s and 2000s and performing in popular films like Set it Off, Bringing Down the House and the Oscar winning film musical Chicago. In the mid-2000s Owens also delved into the standards repertoire releasing two Grammy nominated vocal albums. She has continued garnering recognition for her dramatic performances in the TV film Life Support, the musical Hairspray and the TV film Bessie.
Reba McEntire: McEntire was the dominant female singer in country music from the mid 1980s-mid 1990s. Her powerful voice, emotional accessibility and stylistic range helped her appeal to fans of traditional country and simultaneously define contemporary mainstream country. The prolific singer‘s greatest album For My Broken Heart, recorded in 1991 after her band mates died in a plane crash showcased the power and poignancy of her approach. McEntire has served as role model and influence on most female country vocalist who followed. She has also branched out successfully into musical theatre, film, and TV making her one of country music’s most enduring crossover figures.
Rickie Lee Jones: Jones’s blending of beat poetry, bop daring, and Laura Nyro like melodic fluidity made her one of rock’s most iconoclastic singer-songwriters on her 1979 debut album, notable for "Chuck E's in Love." Shortly after gaining critical respect and commercial attention for her fresh approach she defied pop conventions pushing herself into unpredictable directions with each album. Whether recording her inspired originals on albums like Pirates (1981) and Flying Cowboys (1989), or interpreting standards (1991's Pop, Pop) Jones is always authentic to her aesthetic vision.
Roberta Flack: Flack brought a hushed, meditative sensuality and folk flavor to popular music in the early ‘70s thanks to era defining performances of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” A gifted piano player and arranger with a beautiful voice and a languorous sense of time Flack expanded the public image of black popular music. She also recorded a series of beloved duets with her friend R&B genius Donny Hathaway that are among the era’s most romantic statements of devotion. Flack thrived well into the 1980s and 1990s smartly adapting her elegant voice to a variety of contemporary styles that maintained her visibility and impressed listeners.
Ronettes/Ronnie Spector: The "1-2-3- BOOM /1-2-3 BOOM" opening of “Be My Baby” is one of the most recognizable drumbeats in rock music. The combination of Ronnie Spector, Estelle Bennett, and Nedra Talley's yearning sound with producer Phil Spector’s enveloping “Wall of Sound” gave their records a dynamic throb different from other girl groups. Other hits like “Baby I Love You” and “Walking in the Rain” equally captured the zeitgeist of teenage romance in the early ‘60s. Spector has recorded as a soloist and the group has re-formed on occasion. Spector’s unique voice can be heard prominently on Eddie Money’s 1986 hit “Take Me Home Tonight."
Rosanne Cash: Cash brought a clear eyed intelligence and realism that instantly distinguished her from most of her country music peers when she debuted in the early 1980s. She continued to thrive commercially and artistically in the late 1980s. But in the 1990s, an albums like Interiors (1990) and The Wheel (1993), she took even greater risks singing intimately about a broad range of social and personal subjects, and changing stylistically from country to a more rock and folk inflected singer–songwriter style. She is widely regarded as one of the most trenchant singer–songwriters in American folk and roots music.
Ruth Brown: Atlantic Records was long called the “House that Ruth Built” thanks to her popular singles in the early ‘50s including “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” After defining the Atlantic sound with her powerful voice and versatile style Brown branched out and recorded for other record labels. In the late ‘80s she re-emerged in grand fashion including a Tony Award winning role in Black and Blue, a prominent supporting role in John Waters’s Hairspray and a Vocal Jazz Grammy for Blues on Broadway. She subsequently recorded a series of acclaimed blue jazz albums for Fantasy Records and the Bullseye Blues label before passing. Brown also gave back to the industry co-founding the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Sarah Vaughan: Vaughan was the greatest diva of vocal jazz who possessed the most luminous range popular music has known and a skill for improvisation that ranked her among the greatest bop musicians. After learning how to play piano and organ in church Vaughan won the Apollo amateur contest and was asked to serve as a second pianist with the Earl Hines band before being recruited to sing with the earliest bebop bands. Vaughan parlayed her formidable vocal and improvisational chops into a stellar career that spanned from the early 1940s through 1990 including contracts with Columbia, Mercury, Roulette, Mainstream, and Pablo Records. Her rich vocal texture and fluid approach to harmony and melody have inspired multitudes of singers in jazz, pop, and R&B.
The Shirelles: Though girl groups like the Boswell Sisters, the Andrews Sisters, and the McGuire Sisters established the blueprint for many close harmony girl groups from the ‘30s-‘50s, The Shirelles (Shirley Alston, Addie Harris, Doris Kenner, and Beverly Lee) were one of the first modern vocal groups of the rock era. Their signature songs, (mainly recorded from 1958-64) “I Met Him on a Sunday,” “Mama Said,” “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” are classics that influenced virtually every girl group that followed including The Bluebelles/LaBelle, The Emotions, The Pointer Sisters, and The Supremes as well as performers like Laura Nyro. and the Manhattan Transfer who have recorded songs from their repertoire.
Shirley Horn: Horn’s elegant understated vocal style and spare tasteful piano playing become one of the signatures of vocal jazz from the 1980s onward. After releasing several promising recordings in the ‘60s Horn left the industry to focus on her family. She gradually returned recording sporadically for independent labels and hit her stride recording a series of highly revered albums for Verve Records characterized by her slow, meditative approach to ballads and hard swinging approach to up-tempo songs. A generation of singers like Dianne Reeves and Diana Krall have cited Horn as a significant influence on their singing.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The blues is understood today as a unique style rooted in the African-American musical and cultural idiom Historically it wedged a huge divide among African-Americans many of whom who viewed it as the devil’s music. The gifted gospel singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe experienced this firsthand. Tharpe, who began recording in 1938, laced her performances of sacred songs like “Rock Me,” “This Train” and “Up Above My Head” (a duet with Marie Knight) with touches of the blues and jazz which frustrated traditional gospel listeners but appealed to more modern ears making her arguably the first artist from the gospel world to gain a popular audience. Tharpe influenced a vast spectrum of singers from Little Richard to virtually all contemporary gospel singers. She was the subject of Gayle Wald’s 2003 biography Shout, Sister, Shout! and 2003’s multi-artist tribute of the same name featuring a variety of blues, folk, gospel, pop, R&B, and rock singers.
Staple Singers: The Staple Singers, founded by “Pops” Staples but famous for Mavis Staples’s sultry style and her harmonizing with siblings Cleotha and Pervis, was the most successful gospel influenced R&B group. The group recorded traditional gospel at Vee-Jay Records then integrated more politically themed material in the early 1960s to mid-1960s at various labels before hitting their greatest stride at Stax Records. There they soared on the majestic “I’ll Take You There” and the powerful anthem “Respect Yourself” two of the defining songs of the ‘70s. Mavis began a parallel solo career in the late ‘60s singing R&B material a pattern she continued into the 2000s when she recorded several critically respected albums of civil rights anthems, gospel, and roots music.
Tammy Wynette: Born into a rural environment Wynette got firsthand experience living and working in the country before starting a family and pursuing a musical career. Wynette stood out instantly through her poignant voice and incisive songs about marriage, family, and domestic life. Anthems like “Stand By Your Man,” and “Til I Can Make it On My Own” resonated strongly with the country audience and also impacted the pop market. Wynette had a famously tumultuous relationship with George Jones and various medical challenges. But none of these distracted from her music which has made her one of country’s defining voices.
Tina Turner: Tina Turner’s throaty voice and commanding stage presence helped her become one of the cornerstone vocalists of R&B beginning in the ‘60s as lead singer of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. On classics like “Fool in Love,” “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” and the Phil Spector epic “River Deep Mountain High” her soaring rasp presented a blistering edge unusual for female vocalists. After divorcing her abusive husband in the ‘70s she toiled as a solo singer and live performer until releasing her much vaunted comeback album, 1984’s Private Dancer a contemporary production that showcased her vocal mastery of rock, pop, and soul balladry. Turner has built on its foundation ever since releasing a stream of albums and ascending to the rank of the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll thanks to decades of powerful singing and her legendarily dynamic concert style.
Wanda Jackson: Jackson was the most dynamic female singer in rockabilly recording a series of classic singles and albums in the late ‘50s–early ‘60s for Capitol including “Mean Mean Man” and “Fujiyama Mama.” A guitarist and songwriter, she brought a high level of moxie and humor to her recordings. In addition to rock ‘n’ roll she also recorded solid country albums before focusing on Christian music. Gradually in the 2000s she returned to secular music recording a series of country and rock oriented albums in her signature style.
Whitney Houston: In the mid-1980s Houston brought an elegant, soulful, and powerful edge to pop-soul songs that made her the vocal standard bearer for pop singing. Raised by famous background singer Cissy Houston and trained in a Baptist church setting Houston blended gospel fervency with pop belting on a grand scale that has inspired generations of listeners. After establishing herself with conventional pop material like “Saving All My Love for You” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” she branched out into soundtracks and more contemporary R&B that showcased her lovely voice to great effect. Her biggest hit, her epic rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” from The Bodyguard soundtrack is one of the most iconic ballad performances of its time. In the 2000s her personal struggles with a difficult marriage to Bobby Brown and drug addictions overwhelmed her; she passed tragically in 2012.
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