A Lady Sings the Blues: Iconic Women in Music History

Some Amazing Ladies of Blues, Jazz and Rock

Music would be unthinkable without the amazing contributions of our female musicians across all genres: classical, rock, jazz, blues, country, hip hop ,and more. But far too often they don’t get the amount of praise or attention that they truly deserve. Each of the women written about below made an indelible impression upon music without which the history of 20th century popular music would be radically altered. Ma Rainey was a key instrument in helping to disseminate and popularize the blues at the dawn of the 20th century. Bessie Smith furthered that mission by becoming the most popular black entertainer of her era. Without Billie Holiday, jazz singing would be almost unrecognizably different. Dinah Washington made contributions to a plurality of genres and was one of the most popular entertainers of her day. Janis Joplin is one of the immortal legends of rock and roll in the same way that Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison are. So here’s to the ladies of blues, rock and jazz – there are so many more of them, but our space is limited. Without a doubt though, these five should be included on anyone’s list of great 20th century female artists:

1. Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey – born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett – was a part of one of the earliest eras of professional blues singers. She belonged to a sub-genre of the blues known as “Classic Female Blues”, an urban form of the blues that featured female vocalists. Her nickname was “The Mother of the Blues” since she was one of the very earliest known blues singers. Ma Rainey began performing during her teenage years. After marrying Will Rainey, the couple toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later on Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Ma Rainey made her first recording in 1923 and over the duration of the next five years she recorded over 100 songs. Some of her famous recordings include “See See Rider Blues”, “Black Bottom”, “Soon This Morning”, “Moonshine Blues”, and “Bo-weevil Blues”. Ma Rainey had tremendous vocal power and vibrant, enthusiastic energy when she performed. She’s known as a master of vocal phrasing and harnessed a unique “moaning” style of singing. Unfortunately, the sound quality of her recordings don’t match the glory of her actual performances due to sub-par recording techniques and equipment at her record label, Paramount. Rainey recorded music with jazz legend Louis Armstrong as well as the Georgia Jazz Band. In 1935, she retired to her hometown in Georgia.

2. Bessie Smith

Blues singer Bessie Smith, known as The Empress of the Blues, was the most popular of the classic female blues singers, during an era spanning the 1920s and 1930s. Many consider her one of the greatest vocalists of her era. Along with Louis Armstrong, she exerted a major influence on both blues and jazz singing in her day. In her early years, she worked along with Ma Rainey who most likely had a significant influence on her. But by 1913, Bessie Smith began creating her own act, striking it out by herself and leaving Ma Rainey behind. In 1923, Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia Records and soon scored her first hit with the classic, “Downhearted Blues”, the B-Side to “Gulf Coast Blues”. Soon, Bessie Smith’s popularity enabled her to become the highest paid black performer of the period. Like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith had an extremely powerful voice, but due to superior recording techniques we have much better audio renderings of Bessie Smith’s vocals. During her time with Columbia Records, Bessie Smith made some 160 records, many of which had the vocalist accompanied by some of the greatest musicians of the era including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Fletcher Henderson.

3. Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, born as Eleanora Fagan, was primarily a jazz singer whose career spanned almost 30 years. She was nicknamed “Lady Day” by legendary sax player Lester Young, a friend of Holiday’s. Holiday was extremely influential to vocalists in both jazz and pop music. She was a master of phrasing, and found inspiration in the work of the instrumental musicians that surrounded her. In addition to her excellent vocal delivery, she had impressive vocal improvisational chops. Billie Holiday began her career singing in Harlem nightclubs, when she was discovered by legendary A&R man John Hammond. He loved her voice, and she was soon signed to Brunswick Records in 1935. She collaborated with pianist Teddy Wilson on the hit song “What a Little Moonlight Can do”, which to this day remains a popular jazz standard. One of the highlights of her career was performing sold out concerts at Carnegie Hall. Billie Holiday has won four posthumous Grammy awards for Best Historical Album and in 1973 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Some of her most notable recordings include her version of the Gershwins’ “Summertime”, “Carelessly”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Strange Fruit”, and “God Bless the Child”.

Billie Holiday

American jazz singer and songwriter Billie Holiday performs in New York City.

4. Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington, born as Ruth Lee Jones, was both a vocalist and pianist and was considered the most popular black female recording artist of the 1950’s. Although her primary genre was jazz, her various records included a range of styles such as blues, traditional pop music, and rhythm and blues. Washington began her career in Gospel and learned how to play the piano as a child. In her teen years she began to play clubs and soon began performing with the legendary Lionel Hampton. After 1946, Dinah Washington went solo, signed with Mercury Records, and released her first hit, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” by Fats Waller. Between 1948 and 1955 had 27 top 10 R&B hits, cementing her place in the American popular consciousness.She named herself the “Queen of the Blues”. In 1959 she won a Grammy award for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance for the song, “What a Difference a Day Makes”. She’s also had three songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, including the aforementioned “What a Difference”, “Teach Me Tonight”, and “Unforgettable”.  Although she remained a hugely popular singer with the public, music critics had a somewhat turbulent relationship with her, sometimes accusing her of selling out her art. Despite this, in 1993 Dinah Washington was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

5. Janis Joplin

Janis Lyn Joplin is probably the most important female vocalist in the history of rock music. She began her professional career and made her breakthrough as the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company before striking it out on her own as a solo artist. Her solo work was performed with backing bands the Kozmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band. Janis Joplin rocketed to fame with her breathtaking performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Some of her greatest songs include “Summertime”, “Ball ‘n’ Chain”, “Piece of My Heart”, “Cry Baby”, and “Me and Bobby McGee”. The latter was her only #1 hit, and a posthumous one at that. Joplin as a performer was often described by both audiences and critics as “electric” and she would often perform with the ecstatic abandon of a woman possessed by the rock gods. Rolling Stone ranked her at #46 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004 – too, low down, in our opinion – and bumped her up to #28 in 2008 – much better. In 1995, Janis Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and immortalized. She has been one of the United States biggest sellers to date, with the RIAA certifying 15.5 million albums sold.

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin

– Brian Reiser
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  1. Daniel l. mitchell

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