THE GREATEST FEMALE VOCALISTS OF ALL TIME

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 Google Images

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

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.

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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”.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

Image: Etta James

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.

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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.

About thomasjford

I like Movies and Music and most things popular culture.

17 comments

  1. All are great. No question.

    I’d add Billie Holiday.

    • There are plenty who missed out but I could only really include people who I was familiar with, and I don’t know enough about Billie Holiday I’m afraid. That’s the beauty of top tens right there!

      • It sure is. Specially since everyone you did include is awesome, too. Notice I said I’d add Holiday, not remove anyone else. 🙂

  2. Excellent choices here, Tom…and great write-ups on each of them, as usual. I’m not a Beyonce fan but I acknowledge that she’s got pipes. I like or love everyone else listed here. Much as I love Debbie Harry, I think two singers from the era when she came to prominence would appear higher on my list: Pat Benatar and Chrissie Hynde. In fact, Hynde is probably my favorite female artist of all time.

    If you’ll indulge me in a little self-promotion, since you included the amazing Joni Mitchell here (who I consider less of a great “vocalist” than a great all-around musician/songwriter/artist), here’s a link to the 7-part series I wrote about her discography back in 2011:
    http://kamertunesblog.wordpress.com/category/joni-mitchell/

    Best wishes…
    Rich

    • Excellent, thanks for the link Rich!

      Chrissie Hynde isn’t someone I know much about if I’m honest. Although she did date Ray Davies, so our Kinks connection is still alive haha!

      As for Pat Benatar, whenever I’ve seen that name I’ve always assumed it was a guy haha. Which translates as I have never heard any of her music before!

      • Wow, we must be from different generations. In my teenage years you couldn’t escape Pat Benatar & Chrissie Hynde…and that was a good thing. I think the music they made in the 70s & 80s holds up extremely well, and they’re still going strong.

        Thanks for bringing it back to The Kinks. Well played.

  3. Great selection, Tom!
    I would add Gladys Knight, Stevie Nicks, Adele, Tracy Chapman, Anastacia

  4. Another nice list – no arguments about any of the selections here. Aretha really impressed me with her ‘I never loved a man…’ album. I’d add Tori Amos & Kate Bush as a couple of my more recent favourites.

  5. I would add Janelle Monae! though she hasn’t quite achieved the classic status that these other vocalists have. At least she writes her own songs, though!

  6. giorge thomas

    Etta James and Joni Mitchell – love them. Poetic, and soulful.

    Beyonce may have a good voice, but she’s lost herself in her own ego.

    • Yeah I’m no huge Beyoncé fan, but I recognise she is talented. And I’m not a pop fan by any stretch, but I can recognise a classic when I hear one, and she’s had a few!

  7. Such diverse choices, all of them are phenomenal.

  8. Nice, varied choices. Funny that you compared Nico – a big favourite of mine, both on a musical and personal ground – with Tom Waits, whose voice I could never really stand. How does this ‘tastes’ thing work? haha

    Also I’m interested to find out what you refer to when you say that Nina Simone was controversial. I basically know nothing about her.

    • I don’t know a great deal about her, but some of her songs would definitely be deemed ‘protest’ songs, such as Strange Fruit about the vision of blacks being hung from trees etc. Also she liked to wave guns around I think, even shot some dude in the leg once!! haha

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