To follow up my list of the greatest male vocalists, here are some of my favourite female vocalists. I found this list harder because, in general, I’m more of a man’s man, and identify with male led bands and vocalists. That’s not to say I don’t have my favourite ladies though, it’s just that they tend to inhabit genres of music that I’m not interested in, such as pop and R ‘n’ B.
Aretha Franklin: Solo artist
Defining Track: Respect
If James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, then Aretha was the female equivalent. She is quite rightly regarded as probably the best female vocalist of all time. Her commercial peak was in the sixties with hits such as Respect, Think, I Say A Little Prayer and (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman. She has at least one all time classic album, with 1967’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, recorded at Muscle Shoals. Once the seventies arrived she started releasing more personal records, like the live Gospel album Amazing Grace. Aretha also appeared in The Blues Brothers in a cameo role.
Janis Joplin: Big Brother and the Holding Company, solo artist
Defining Track: Piece of My Heart
Janis Joplin came to prominence in the late sixties as part of the hippie movement. She appeared at both the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969 and released some well received albums in that time, including Cheap Thrills and Pearl. Unfortunately the temptations of drink and drugs were never far from Joplin and in 1970 she became one of the first casualties in the ’27 club’ which would also find homes soon enough for Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
Joni Mitchell: Solo artist
Defining Track: River
Not necessarily a voice to be held up against the likes of Aretha Franklin, but Joni Mitchell is so influential, both as a singer and songwriter, and so individual that she deserves her place on the list. Her recording legacy has influenced all sorts of artists, right up to the likes of Joanna Newsom and Laura Marling today. She has numerous classic albums to back up her claims, including one of my favourites of all time, “Blue”.
Beyonce: Destiny’s Child, solo artist
Defining Track: Crazy In Love
I can’t say I am a fan of modern day R ‘n’ B which is why you will find no Whitney, Mariah and co on this list, despite their status as great singers. I do, however, appreciate that Beyonce is a true force of nature, and has some fantastic singles with both Destiny’s Child and solo, under her belt. See, I can still get down with the kids!
Tina Turner: Ike & Tina Turner Revue, solo artist
Defining Track: River Deep, Mountain High
Being an eighties kid, my first knowledge of Tina Turner was as the big haired superstar releasing hits such as Simply The Best. She had some great songs around that time, but the deeper I got into music I realised she was actually a superstar back in the sixties, and that is what sold me. Songs like Proud Mary and River Deep, Mountain High and Nutbush City Limits are soul classics, and led to supporting gigs with rock acts such as The Rolling Stones. It’s a pity old Ike was such a douche bag!
Debbie Harry: Blondie
Defining Track: Call Me
Another artist who is on the list due to her huge influence on everything from music to fashion, rather than her singing abilities per se. Debbie Harry was, I imagine, every school boys poster girl in the late seventies and early eighties. She was just cool, be it during the band’s punk days, or their move into disco with “Atomic” and “Rapture”. A singer, actress and style icon. Not bad!
Dusty Springfield: Solo artist
Defining Track: Son of a Preacher Man
English singer Dusty Springfield, she of the huge bee-hive, was a pretty big deal in the sixties, with hits such as “I Only Want To Be With You” and “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”. In the late sixties she branched out and headed to America to record the classic album”Dusty In Memphis”. Her star waned after the sixties, until Quentin Tarantino included her song “Son of a Preacher Man” on his Pulp Fiction sound track. Modern day artists such as Duffy, Amy Winehouse and Rumer owe more than a nod to Dusty. She died in 1999.
Nina Simone: Solo artist
Defining Track: Feeling Good
The ultra talented but controversial Simone was a legend long before her death in 2003. Her mix of blues and jazz produced some fantastic work, including her civil rights song “Strange Fruit”, “I Put A Spell on You” and “I Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”. She has possibly become more well known after her death, with many of her songs being used commercially and in movies, as well as being covered by other artists.
Etta James: Solo artist
Defining Track: At Last
Etta James star shines brighter than ever at the moment, with every X-Factor hopeful belting out “At Last” to varying degrees of success. No one does it better than Etta James though. Her defining time, in the early sixties was full of hits such as “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and “All I Could Do Was Cry”. Later in life she shot to fame courtesy of the Coca-Cola adverts using the song “I Just Want To Make Love To You”. She died in 2012.
Nico: The Velvet Underground, solo artist
Defining Track: These Days
Nico is a polarizing choice, and one that I’m not sure I’m even fully backing. But, her influence and icy cold vocals are still heard today with many different acts, and the fact she was a part of one of the key bands of all time, The Velvet Underground, mean she should be here. Like Tom Waits on my male list, her voice will be a love/hate thing, but I was won over when Wes Anderson used the track “These Days” in The Royal Tenenbaums. Nico also modelled and starred in films such as La Dolce Vita. She died of a heart attack in 1988.