International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th March each year, so this week, we’re showcasing ten influential women musicians who have shone a light for all others who follow.
Scratch any jazz singer today and you’ll find a layer of Billie Holiday underneath. Holiday’s distinctive style changed music forever, and not just jazz. With her thin voice and limited range of just over an octave, Billie was made from very different, and seemingly more limited, stuff to her contemporaries, but what she brought was emotional honesty, made all the more poignant for its understated delivery.
From her 1915 birth in Philadelphia as Eleanora Fagan, Holiday had a troubled childhood, starting with the departure soon after her birth of her jazz guitarist father and being left for long periods by her mother with her half-sister in Baltimore. Living in extreme poverty, Holiday found herself in reform school at nine and dropping out of school at eleven. After working running errands in a brothel at twelve, Holiday moved with her mother to Harlem, where she was eventually arrested at 14.
Singing was respite from Billie’s troubles, and it led her to gigs in Harlem jazz clubs, where in 1933 she was discovered by producer John Hammond, who was impressed by her unique, slow style, which brought a soulful new character to established tunes. From there, opportunities to work with greats like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie brought her to the attention of a wider audience. Her recordings with Teddy Wilson in particular are considered among the greats of the jazz canon.
Known affectionately as “Lady Day”, Holiday was also a trailblazer in other ways, including as a songwriter in the days when it was considered unusual for a woman (with classics like “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain”).
She also had the courage, rare in her day and even rarer for a woman, to make political statements through her music, most notably with “Strange Fruit”, a searing and moving song about lynchings in the American South.
Years of trouble with drugs and alcohol ended her life at just 44, but her admirers to this day see her life as an example of rising above your troubles by singing them out. By accessing her own heart of darkness she has touched hearts ever since.
Despite being short-lived, Patsy Cline’s star is one of the brightest in the Nashville sky. A few years from the late 1950s to her death in a plane crash in 1963 was all it took for her to transform the influence of women in country music and beyond.
Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932, in Winchester, Virginia, Patsy had her own childhood troubles (if not as dramatic as Billie Holiday’s), with her father leaving when she was fifteen. She suffered rheumatic fever at thirteen, although this was a kind of blessing in disguise, affecting her in a way that helped her develop a rich contralto singing voice. Leaving school to help support the family when her father left, she worked by day and sung by night. After ten years of hard work on the local country music circuit, she had her big break singing “Walking After Midnight” on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” on CBS television in 1957. The show gave her exposure beyond the limited country scene out to a wider pop audience. The song, which she initially dismissed as “just a little old pop song”, appealed to the younger viewers who pushed it to high rotation on the popular radio stations and created one of the first true crossover hits.
More such hits, such as “I Fall to Pieces” and the classic “Crazy”, followed. She joined the likes of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson in becoming stars outside of country music, but she was the first woman to do so. She encouraged and nurtured many other female singers. She also made a reputation as a strong, independent business person who could deal with the toughest characters in the tough Nashville scene.
Her professional life was a string of firsts: the first female country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall, the first female inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame (posthumously in 1973), and the first female country star to headline her own show. She has also been the first and most important influence of generations of female country singers.
If Billie and Patsy were responsible for elevating the place of women in their genre and even elevating the genre itself, Aretha Franklin might even be thought of as the creator of her own genre.
Aretha was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1942, to a Baptist preacher father and a gospel singer mother. Her early life was steeped in music. She performed with her father’s traveling revival show, and his high-energy sermons attracted many great gospel singers and other celebrities. After her mother died when Aretha was just nine, she was supported by Mahalia Jackson. With her father’s assistance, she began a career as a gospel singer, but soon she wanted to follow in the footsteps of another family friend, Sam Cooke, who was exploring the idea of crossing over from gospel to pop. A record contract soon followed, and as she went deeper into contemporary soul and R&B styles, her success grew. But it was on signing to Atlantic Records in 1967 that she really came into her own, as she was able to call on her gospel roots, wringing tremendous passion from her powerful voice on classics like “Chain of Fools” and her signature tune, “Respect”, which reached No.1 on both the R&B and pop charts.
Franklin’s career has been stellar ever since, becoming one of the biggest selling female artists of all time, the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (in 1987), the winner of an amazing 18 Grammy awards, achieving No.1 on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Singers of All Time, and even having her voice declared a natural resource by the state of Michigan.
It would be hard to imagine an artist more widely respected than Aretha Franklin. Her riveting voice has defined soul music and inspired countless other performers, from Annie Lennox to Whitney Houston to Christina Aguilera.
Carole King’s legacy is easy to underestimate, perhaps in part because much of it is behind the scenes. She was born Carol Klein in 1942 in Manhattan. She learned piano from age four, and at 17, met Gerry Goffin, who would become her husband and co-writer. When she became pregnant at 17, they both left college and worked day jobs, developing their writing at night. They struck gold almost immediately with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, which became the first No.1 hit for a black girl group. The amazing string of successes that followed include “Take Good Care of My Baby” , “The Loco-Motion”, “Up on the Roof”, “One Fine Day”, “I’m Into Something Good”, and the masterful “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman”, made famous by Aretha Franklin.
All this time King nursed ambitions for a performing career, scoring one 1960’s hit as a singer with “It Might as Well Rain Until September”. But in 1971 she broke through with the Tapestry album, a deeply personal reflection on her life, which struck a chord with the times. In a first for a female artist, Tapestry won all three major Grammy Awards for record, song (for “You’ve Got a Friend”) and album of the year—as well as best female vocalist honours for “It’s Too Late”. With more than 25 million units sold, Tapestry remained on the charts for six years and was best-selling album by a female artist for a quarter century.
A restless creative spirit, King has since continued to write, perform and collaborate widely, but her real legacy is seen through countless singer-songwriters who appreciate pop music as the true art form that it is.
If you went through a time of emotional upheaval any time in the 1970’s, you’ve probably cried to more than one Joni Mitchell song. Hers is surely one of the most personal voices in music, and she has never shied away from taking risks, both emotionally and musically.
Mithcell was born Roberta Joan Anderson in Alberta, Canada in 1943. She began singing to motivate herself to recover from polio contracted at age 8. She sang in folk clubs and busked around Canada before moving to the United States in 1965. Her high, delicate voice and poetic lyrics endeared her to the folk scene, and other artists were attracted to songs like “Both Sides Now” and “Circle Game”. She became a symbol of the hippie movement with songs like “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi”. But the world of simple folk-based tunes was not enough to contain her restless creativity, and with each new album she ventured further into uncharted territory as she explored pop, jazz and world stylings and intricate arrangements, without ever losing her sense of intimacy. Her voice has changed dramatically over the years, dropping down to a smoky alto well suited to jazz, and she has inspired great interpretations by the likes of Herbie Hancock.
A truly multi-talented artist, Mitchell is the highest-ranking female on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, thanks in part to her exploration of open tunings. She’s also no slouch on piano. She produces her own music, and her highly regarded paintings grace many of her album covers.
She has gained the respect of critics worldwide and has a slew of awards to her name, but that matters little to most of her listeners. If you’re a Joni fan, you feel like she is part of your life, a confidant who seems to almost know you better than you do yourself. There could be no greater exponent of the healing power of song.
Dolly Rebecca Parton (born in Tennessee January 19, 1946) no doubt owes a lot to the legacy of Patsy Cline, but she’s taken her celebrity to a whole other level.
The fourth of twelve children, Parton began her singing career at a young age, appearing on radio and TV by age ten, and moving to Nashville at 18. She began the road to the top by writing for other country artists, but by the late 1960’s found performing success singing duets with TV host Porter Wagoner, followed through the 1970’s with hits as a soloist, most notably with “Jolene”, a worldwide crossover breakthrough in 1973. From there, she embraced the pop charts, finding huge success with “9 to 5”, from the movie in which she also starred, and “Islands in the Stream” with Kenny Rogers.
Her songs were taken up by pop stars like Olivia Newton-John and Linda Ronstadt. Famously, Elvis Presley was keen to record her song “I Will Always Love You”, but when his manager Colonel Tom Parker asked for half the publishing rights, she stood by her principles and declined the offer. She was vindicated when in 1992 the song was sung by Whitney Houston in her film “The Bodyguard” and became one of the biggest-selling songs of all time, making the Billboard top 3 three times.
According to Wikipedia, Parton is the most honored female country performer of all time. Achieving 25 RIAA certified gold, platinum, and multi-platinum awards, she has had 25 songs reach No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts, a record for a female artist. She has 41 career top 10 country albums, a record for any artist, and she has 110 charted singles over the past 40 years. All-inclusive sales of singles, albums, hits collections, and digital downloads during her career have topped 100 million worldwide.
If that wasn’t enough, Parton has been successful in film and television, receiving Golden Globe nominations along the way, and is a respected philanthropist, notably through her Dollywood Foundation. Diminutive but larger than life, Dolly is an inspiration within and outside the world of music.
Nobody has done more than Madonna to usher in an unprecedented era of self-determination for women entertainers. Her unwavering commitment to artistic autonomy and business awareness has made possible an age where women in music are taken seriously, even beyond a lifespan dependent on the marketing of youth and beauty.
Born in Michigan in 1958, Madonna Louise Ciccone was a high achiever who excelled at dancing but struggled at home after her mother died when she was five. In 1978, she left for New York with $35 in her pocket and found her way into bands as a backing singer and dancer. After signing to Sire Records as a solo artist, she quickly broke into the club scene and then into the mainstream with the hit single “Holiday”. From the outset she was a trendsetter, writing her own material in a world dominated by influential producers, exploring new music technologies and developing a much-imitated visual style that exemplified the 1980’s.
However, she never settled on any single direction, constantly searching for new styles, pushing boundaries with whatever she has done, with a new direction with each new album and numerous sidelines, including acting, writing and film-making.
In the content of her books and videos she has never shied away from controversy. She has also been a champion of creative and financial independence, founding the aptly-named Maverick Records and many other business ventures, including a $120 million deal with Live Nation which changed the financial game for 21st century artists.
You don’t get to be the biggest-selling female artist in history without talent and chutzpa. Madonna has reached that pinnacle her way, without compromise.
Maybe it’s something in the geysers, but the tiny nation of Iceland (pop 325,000, all pop musicians it seems) has been a crucible for some of the most adventurous musical experimenters. The most famous of these is Björk.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir was born in Reykjavik in 1965. Her parents separated when she was born and she grew up with her activist mother in a commune. In the melting pot of the Reykjavik music scene, The teenage Björk joined numerous bands exploring punk, fusion, goth and experimental music and began to develop her vocal technique, eventually finding a suitable vehicle in the post-punk group The Sugarcubes. Their first single, released on Björk’s 21st birthday, and in fact called “Birthday”, showcased her extraordinary voice, veering from tender and fragile to guttural and strident, and became an international alternative hit in 1987.
After the Sugarcubes dissolved, Björk began to develop a solo career and more deeply explored sampling, looping and other technological possibilities, moving to London to work with cutting-edge collaborators. She developed a multimedia mindset, hiring innovative video directors and creating lavish, complex stage shows. Her solo album, “Debut”, was widely acclaimed, spawning singles like “Human Behaviour” with its seminal video by Oscar-winner Michel Gondry. Each album since has broken new ground. In 2011, her “Biophilia”, exploring the nexus of nature and technology, was the first album in the form of a collection of apps, including interactive programs that allow the user to create their own music or remix her songs, and also including an accompanying educational program. In 2014 these apps were the first ever to be inducted into the Museum of Modern Art‘s permanent collection.
As well, Björk has explored acting, including her award-winning performance in “Dancer in the Dark” (which she also scored), activism, and poetry, and she is a tireless champion for other artists.
With her spectacular stage shows, often bizarre costumes, and challenging music, Björk is too left-field for some, but it’s artists like her who break ground for more mainstream performers to explore. And the versatility and visceral impact of that voice is undeniable.
In the male-dominated world of hip-hop, Missy Elliott is a breath of fresh air, and has enjoyed the kind of success usually associated with male artists.
Born Melissa Elliott in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1971, she survived a poverty-stricken, abusive family life, escaping her father along with her mother at the age of 14. In the early 1990s, she moved with her childhood friend Timbaland to New York, where they shared a house with 20-plus like-minded artists. The interactions and collaborations within the group fostered her skills as a songwriter and producer, and she and Timbaland got their biggest break producing and guesting on Aaliyah’s double-platinum “One in a Million” album. A whirl of opportunities followed, including a growing list of guest appearances, before she launched her own imprint and began releasing solo albums, without letting up on the production work with artists like Destiny’s Child, Sean “Puffy” Coombs and Whitney Houston.
In 2002, her “Under Construction” became the biggest selling rap album by a female artist, with the single “Work It” reaching No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and winning MTV video of the year. Continuing with her career as collaborator and producer, Elliott worked with the likes of Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Madonna.
She is considered the most successful female rap artist, with five Grammies and six platinum albums, and has inspired a host of women in hip-hop, dance and R&B.
Since bursting onto the scene in 2008, Lady Gaga has forged her own path, but has always seemed to be able to take us along for the ride.
Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, born in New York in 1986, always had a theatrical bent, playing piano from age four and dominating high school musical productions. Her short stint studying musical theatre at NYU opened her up to contemporary arts and she developed a stage style influenced by burlesque and avant-garde performance art as well as glam rock, gradually becoming more experimental and outrageous and surprising Manhattan clubbers with…
At the same time she was sharpening her songwriting skills, securing a publishing deal and writing for Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, Fergie and The Pussycat Dolls. Eventually a reference vocal she recorded for a song convinced a label to take her on. Her debut release, “The Fame” was an ambitious concept album, blending dance, disco, glam and R&B, and was an instant success, with “Poker Face” selling 13.5 million copies to date.
Her subsequent releases have, if anything, been even more adventurous and have been accompanied by spectacular live shows, over-the-top costumes and often provocative videos. And yet, in 2014, she teamed up with legendary crooner Tony Bennett for the “Cheek to Cheek” album, a respectful collection of jazz and easy listening standards. Her fans faithfully followed this hairpin bend in her career and made it another number one album. Most recently she has won admiration for her Oscars tribute to Julie Andrews.
In a few short years, Lady Gaga has become one of the best-selling musicians of all time. She seems particularly astute at reading the mood of the time, being particularly successful in digital markets, and has achieved financial success and influence against the backdrop of a declining music industry. She is also active as a philanthropist and activist – a 21st century renaissance woman.
You may think of her as that minx with the meat dress, but she can’t be ignored. Under the chameleon skin, there is a genuine creative force.
We love this list, but leaving some superb musicians out felt just awful! If we’ve missed your favorite, sing out!