National Women’s Day

In honor of National Women’s Day we wanted to honor a few women in music of whom paved the way for other women in music. These women crossed barriers and changed how music is enjoyed today in a previously male dominated industry.

Ma Rainey created what is now known as “classic blues” while also portraying black life like never before. As a musical innovator she built on the minstrelsy and vaudeville performative traditions with comedic timing and a hybrid of American blues traditions she encountered in her vast tours across the country.

Sarah McLachlan

Not only was it a turning point in her career, but her tour is also credited for breaking down barriers in the music industry, making it a turning point for women in music. … It was also believed that tours with multiple women artists would not bring in the crowds that men could however she proved that to be a misconception with “Lilith Fair.”

Whitney Houston

Of course, the most awarded female artist of all-time is on this list. She started singing as a young girl in church, and never stopped, becoming a household name who still holds the record for best-selling single. Anyone heard of a little song called “I Will Always Love You”?

Madonna

Madonna took risks with her music by tackling tabu subject matter and was a target for ridicule by men in the industry.

With 16 Guinness World Records, 7 Grammys, and 68 nominations for the MTV Music Awards, it’s safe to say Madonna will go down in history as a pop icon, brilliant business woman with major talent who paved the way for other singers. There’d be no Gaga, Britney or any other pop songstress without her.

Dolly Parton

Singer, songwriter, record producer, author, businesswoman, philanthropist — you name it, and Dolly Parton has done it. She’s written over 3,000 songs and changed the course of country music forever. Still not convinced? Give a listen to podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” and good luck trying not to binge it all in a day.

Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.

She pushed cultural boundaries and addressed racism in a very dangerous time on stage which made her a target by the FBI. To great controversy, Billie introduced the world to the racially charged protest song “Strange Fruit.” In the end, some believe it killed her.

In March 1939, a 23-year-old Billie Holiday walked up to the mic at West 4th’s Cafe Society in New York City to sing her final song of the night. Per her request, the waiters stopped serving and the room went completely black, save for a spotlight on her face. And then she sang, softly in her raw and emotional voice: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…”

When Holiday finished, the spotlight turned off. When the lights came back on, the stage was empty. She was gone. And per her request, there was no encore. This was how Holiday performed “Strange Fruit,” which she would determinedly sing for the next 20 years until her untimely death at the age of 44.

“Strange Fruit” was originally a poem

Holiday may have popularized “Strange Fruit” and turned it into a work of art, but it was a Jewish communist teacher and civil rights activist from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, who wrote it, first as a poem, then later as a song.

Considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, Billie Holiday triumphed over adversity to forever change the genres of jazz and pop music with her unique styling and interpretation.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin won a record eight consecutive Grammys for best R&B vocal performance from 1967-1974. The “Queen of Soul” was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and sang at historic events in U.S. history like the memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. and the 2009 inauguration for President Barack Obama. Franklin also topped Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Joan Baez

Joan Baez closed the first day of Woodstock in 1969 and almost instantly achieved a new level of fame with her standout performance. A decade earlier, at only 18, she had performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Throughout her career, Baez has been a champion for civil rights and humanitarian causes, and in 2015, Amnesty International awarded her its top honor—the Ambassador of Conscience Award—for her continuing leadership and efforts in this arena.

Diana Ross

As the lead singer of The Supremes, Diana Ross shattered music records from 1965 to 1969. The Supremes are revered as one of the top girl groups of all time, with a dozen #1 hits. By 1970, Ross left the group to pursue a solo career. Her first two singles hit #1, and she went on to star in a number of films, including “Lady Sings the Blues,” which garnered her an Oscar nomination; “Mahogany”; and “The Wiz.” Ross was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful female artist of all time, and the book produced a special commemorative Diana Ross edition in 1993.

Tina Turner

Tina Turner was the second artist on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the first female and Black artist to be on the cover of the famed magazine. She started her career in the late 1950s, and for nearly 20 years, she performed with her ex-husband Ike. After leaving him and pursuing a career on her own, it was the 1984 release of “Private Dancer” that put her back on track. Turner has been christened the “Queen of Rock” and was a major inspiration to artists like Beyoncé.

Carole King

In the 1960s, Carole King wrote many hits for some of music’s top acts, setting a precedent for female songwriters. Five decades later, she won the Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song—the first woman to win the award. King’s standout career was later recapped in a smash Broadway play, “Beautiful.”

Joni Mitchell

In 2017, NPR set out to name the top 150 albums made by women. At #1 on that list? Joni Mitchell’s 1971 classic, “Blue.” Called simple and radical, “Blue” was a rousing call for equality. Mitchell’s influence on the music world—for male and female musicians alike—runs deep.

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