The best female black singers have changed the face of American music in the 20th century, starting with blues and jazz and subsequently, influencing many other genres. It’s also important to note that these women are a mirror reflecting the tumultuous status of race and gender in the United States. This makes their rising to stardom and the trajectory of their musical careers all that much more influential, as they actually molded the shape of culture prior, before and after major events such as the civil rights movement. The following are a list of women that rose from challenging backgrounds and emerged in the limelight to produce art that would be renowned by the rest of the world for decades to come.
With her roots steeped in gospel along with the evidence of influences from myriads of other American musical styles, Aretha Franklin is the undisputed and uncontested "Queen of Soul". Reigning supreme across all melodic genres, she released many Top Ten hits in the' 60s and '70s, experimenting with pop, psychedelic and rock and roll as well. Among her best hits were "Chain of Fools", "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman", "Think", "Baby I Love You", "The House That Jack Built", and her most well known and signature tune "Respect". Franklin also won eight awards for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and later added three more Grammies for the same category in the '80s.
Also known as "Lady Day", this famous jazz singer credited her unique vocal style to role model crooners Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. The performer, who was discovered in a New York night club in 1933 by writer and producer John Hammond, recorded the best of her work between the years of 1935 and 1942. Unfortunately, Holiday had always battled drug used and dependence and succumbed to an early death in 1959. Even after her passing, she is known to have influenced performers such as Janis Joplin and Nina Simone. In 1987, band U2 released a tribute to Holiday, called "Angel of Harlem".
This rightfully-revered soulful legend began the trajectory of her career at the astounding age of five for gospel-music stations in Los Angeles, eventually being discovered by blues prince Johnny Otis at the age of 16. James spouted classics such as "I'd Rather Go Blind" and “Trust in Me” and was especially known for classic "At Last". In 1993, Etta James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and won three Grammys in 1994, 2003 and 2004.
With an amazing repertoire of a voice and otherwise known as “The First Lady of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald could span the range of three local octaves. Over the course of a 59 year recording career, this American jazz singer was awarded 13 Grammys, the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush.
Selling more than 100 million records world-wide, Ross is renowned as one of the most successful female music artists in history due to topping the charts eighteen times in both America and the United Kingdom. Popular songs of Ross’s include “Ain't No Mountain High Enough”, ”Reach Out and Touch”, ”I'm Coming Out” and ”It's My Turn”.This former lead singer of The Supremes veered onto a solo career that included multiple successes in both film and Broadway, even playing Billie Holiday in autobiographical film “Lady Sings The Blues”.