Their songs are iconic; their voices unforgettable; their influence on music history irrepressible. They are the Black women who pioneered soul, jazz and blues, remaining timeless and a constant source of inspiration, vision and respect. Here are five important women who brought Black music into the spotlight.
Gladys Bentley came to prominence in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. A hub for numerous great Black artists, Harlem brought notice to great works that might otherwise have been lost or never produced, with the irresistible syncopations of jazz enticing the ears of white America for the first time. A brilliant vocalist and pianist, Bentley’s performances were snug with wit, relaxed precision and effortless perfection. You’d find her playing at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House – a popular gay speakeasy – often performing in a white tuxedo and top hat and flirting with women in the audience. She enamoured crowds with her powerful voice and obscene parodies of blues, and would transform popular tunes of the day with raunchy and playful lyrics.
A woman who needs no introduction, Ella Fitzgerald undoubtedly sits in the pantheon of the world’s greatest singers. Her discography is a treasured collection of vocal performances, the standard of which has never been equalled. One of the greatest and best-loved jazz singers of all time, Fitzgerald used her wonderful voice and improvisational scat singing to achieve worldwide renown and an international fan base. Her records, like ‘Flying Home’ and ‘Lady Be Good’, are said to have completely changed the way jazz was perceived, with her series of songbook albums recorded for Norman Granz’s Verve label in the 1950s establishing her as one of the greatest voices of the 20th century.
Billie Holiday is considered to be one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. Effortlessly owning any room she was in, Lady Day performed with unparalleled passion, grace and ferocity. With ‘Strange Fruit’, a protest song against the lynching of Black Americans, Holiday chilled the blood of those who listened and solidified her place in music history, later being initiated into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
As the first Black woman to record a blues record, Mamie Smith blazed a path for other Black people in music. As her versions of Perry Bradford’s ‘Crazy Blues’ and ‘It’s Right Here for You’ sold a million copies in their first year, Smith set the standards and opened doors of recording studios for Black jazz, soul and blues artists.
Nobody could deliver a lyric with precision, wit and class like Dinah Washington, who consistently made an ineradicable mark on her listeners. Rising to fame in the 1940s with risqué blues records, Washington evolved into one of the world’s best female jazz singers thanks to her urbane, jazz-inflected sophistication. Like her idol, Bessie Smith, Washington was a highly influential singer; inspiring and enchanting predecessors such as Esther Phillips and Nancy Wilson in her wake.
Image credit: GRAMMY.com