7 Pioneering Black Female Singers Who Made Music History

Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald are just a few of the artists who deserve to be celebrated.

Long before Aretha, Tina, Whitney, Janet, Brandy, Monica, and Beyonce, a group of pioneering jazz and blues vocalists fashioned the blueprint for the record-breaking feats enjoyed by some of music’s biggest names.

There’s no denying the impact and contributions of black recording acts, and Black Music Month is the perfect time to celebrate some of the groundbreaking black singers whose tenacity and determination paved the way for some of our favorite artists to break barriers of their own.

Check out our list of seven trailblazing blues and jazz singers below.

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Ma Rainey

Noted as the “Mother of Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was reportedly born in Alabama in either 1882 or 1886. She began her music career as a teenager performing in minstrel shows and signed a contract with Paramount Records in 1932, where she would record more than 100 songs over a five-year span. Throughout her career Rainey recorded with the likes of Louis Armstrong, became close friends with Bessie Smith, and toured with the Georgia Jazz Band until her retirement in 1935. She died four years later from a heart attack.

Rainey earned posthumous inductions into the Blues Foundations Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

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Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was the most popular and highest-paid singer of her day. Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith started out as a street performer, and signed with Columbia Phonograph Company (the parent company of Columbia Records) in 1923. The singer-songwriter and composer released 160 recordings under Columbia, sold millions of record, performed on Broadway, and made her first and only silver screen appearance in the 1929 film, St. Louis Blues.

Smith’s music touched on social issues like poverty, intra-racial conflict, female sexuality, and bisexuality. Though her career was lampooned as the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the record industry, she continued touring and recording up until around 1933.

In 1937, Smith was fatally injured in a car accident in Mississippi that left her bleeding to death while awaiting an ambulance. Because of Jim Crow Laws, Smith was not allowed at the local white hospital, and therefore had to be transported to G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where she died. Her grave remained unmarked until 1970 when Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, a woman who worked for Smith as a child, paid to have her tombstone engraved.

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Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is one the most well-known jazz vocalists in history. “Lady Day” was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915. She took the name Billie from her favorite actress, Billie Dove, and Holiday, from her father, Clarence Holiday.

Holiday began singing in Harlem nightclubs as a teenager, and recorded her first song at age 18. She signed with Brunswick Records in 1935 and was hired and later fired as in Count Basie’s band in 1938. A month after her firing, Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw, making her one of the first black singers to lead an all-white orchestra. In 1939, Holiday recorded and performed “Strange Fruit,” which was based off a poem about lynching written two years earlier by Abel Meeropol. She recorded her most coveted hit “God Bless the Child (written by Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939) in 1941, and earned pop success with the 1942 song “Trav’lin Light” which she recorded with Capitol Records, under the name Lady Day due to her contract with Columbia. Over the next decade Holiday recorded several more notables including, “Lover Man” a top 20 pop hit and top 5 hit on the R&B charts. Holiday also appeared in her first and only major motion picture, New Orleans, in 1946, starring opposite Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman.

By the following year Holiday’s career had reached its commercial peak, but she was riddled with legal troubles, namely being arrested for narcotics possession. Holiday pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. She earned an early release in 1948 for good behavior. Weeks later, Holiday played to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.

In her latter years, drug and alcohol addiction crippled her ability to work. Holiday’s criminal conviction resulted in her New York City Cabaret Card being revoked which meant that she couldn’t perform in venues that served alcohol, though she did take the stage at the Ebony Club in 1948, which was technically illegal. For the last decade of her life Holiday toured Europe, returned to Carnegie Hall, and recorded music.

In 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver brought on by alcohol addiction. She was admitted to New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, but as a longtime target of the Federal Bearue of Narcotics with a noted drug addiction, Holiday was arrested for drug possession and handcuffed to her bed as she lay dying in the hospital.

Holiday died on July 17, 1959 of pulmonary edema and heart failure. She was 44.

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Ella Fitzgerald

Around the same time that Billie Holiday was making a name for herself on the jazz scene, Ella Fitzgerald was moving along a similar path. Naturally, Fitzgerald and Holiday were pitted as rivals, but the two became friends instead.

Fitzgerald, a.k.a. “The First Lady of Song,” was born in Newport News, Virginia in 1917. Her mother and stepfather moved the family to Yonkers in the early 1920s. Tragically, Fitzgerald’s mother died when she was 15 leaving her in the care of an abusive stepfather until 1933, when she moved to Harlem to live with an aunt. She was later placed in a segregated girls orphanage in the Bronx after skipping school and allegedly working as a lookout for a numbers runner. Because over overcrowding, Fitzgerald was transferred to the New York Training School for Girls, but escaped and was homeless for a time.

Fitzgerald made her debut on the Apollo Theater in 1934 taking the top prize of a weeklong residency which was never awarded to her likely because of her disheveled look. Nonetheless, the performance would be the first in many milestones in Fitzgerald’s then budding singer career. After scoring a chance to perform with the band Harlem Opera House, Fitzgerald was signed by bandleader Chick Webb and was invited to join Webb’s orchestra with whom she recorded multiple hits including “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” After Webb’s death in 1939, the band was renamed to Ella and Her Famous Orchestra. In 1942, Fitzgerald officially began a solo career that would span decades. She collaborated with fellow jazz greats and friends, Dizzy Gillespe, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. She also shattered gender and racial barriers, most notably becoming the first black female singer to win a Grammy at the inaugural awards ceremony in 1958. Fitzgerald would win a total of 13 Grammys throughout her career, and earned the Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.

By the mid 1980, Fitzgerald’s health began to decline due to a long battle with diabetes. She was hospitalized for respiratory issues and heart failure, and would become wheelchair bound after having both of her legs amputated in 1993. She died from a stroke three years later.

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Mamie Smith

While there is no official record of her birth, Mamie Smith was believed to have been born in Cincinnati in 1883. By 1920, Smith became the first black artist to make a vocal blues recordings, and earned her biggest hit in “It’s Right Here for You (If You Don’t Get It, ‘Tain’t No Fault of Mine),” which sold a million copies in under a year. Her success opened the door for other black female blues singers to be sought after by record labels. Smith retired in 1931, returning to the stage in 1939 for a performance in the film Paradise in Harlem.

While in retirement, Smith appeared in a handful of films, the last of which was Because I Love You in 1943. Smith reportedly fell ill the following year spending the last two years of her life in Harlem hospital. She died in 1946 at age 63.

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Dinah Washington

The “most popular black recording artist of the 1950s” was Dinah Washington, who amassed more than two dozen R&B top 10 hits between 1948 and 1955. Washington was born Born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Ala. in 1924, and was raised in Chicago.

She started out singing in gospel choirs and by 1941 Washington began playing Chicago night clubs and later the Garrick Stage Bar where Billie Holiday performed. Impressed by Washington’s talents, club owner Joe Sherman hired her to play the bar’s upstairs room, while Holiday performed downstairs.

In 1944 Washington recorded her first song for Keynote Records called “Evil Gal Blues,” which began a long streak of hits for the singer. “Evil Gal Blues” landed on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade chart (an early incarnation of the R&B singles chart), along with its follow-up “Salty Papa Blues.” In 1959, Washington landed a top 10 pop hit with her version of “What a Difference a Day Made.” She performed around the country, sharing the stage with fellow jazz greats, Count Basie, and Tony Bennet, and was the first black performer to be booked at Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel main room.

Washington died in 1963 from an overdose of prescription pills. She was 39.

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Sarah Vaughan

A native of Newark, N.J., Sarah Vaughan is credited as one of the first jazz vocalists to introduce bebop into her singing. The singer and pianist acquired a love for music at a young age. As a teen, Vaughan and friends would cross over into New York City to watch jazz bands perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. At age 19, Vaughan took the Apollo stage as an amateur performer. She won the top prize of $10, and opened for Ella Fitzgerald in 1942, and later toured with jazz pianist and band leader, Earl Hines. Vaughan went on to join another band, this time led by jazz and pop singer Billy Eckstine. Vaughan went solo in 1946, and in December of that year, she married her manager, musician, George Treadwell.

In 1947 Vaughan landed a surprise pop hit with “Tenderly.” The following year, she signed with Columbia, her label home until 1953. During her tenure with Columbia, Vaughan released hits like “That Lucky Old Sun”, “Make Believe (You Are Glad When You’re Sorry),” “I’m Crazy to Love You,” and ”I Cried for You.” In 1954, Treadwell negotiated a contract with Vaughn and Mercury Records where she scored her first hit with the label, a song called “Make Yourself Uncomfortable.” That fall, Vaughn performed at Carnegie Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Over the next five years, Vaughan would divorce Treadwell and married her second husband Clyde Atkins with whom she adopted a daughter, Paris Vaughan (a.k.a. Debra Lois). Vaughan divorced Atkins in 1961 and began dating Marshall Fisher, her partner until 1971. Meanwhile, after her contract ended at Mercury, Vaughan joined Roulette Records and recorded multiple ensemble albums piloted by several well known conductors and arrangers, including Bill May and Quincy Jones.

Vaughan remained active on the performing and recording circuit until the 1989 when she began to experience health problems and was subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer. Vaughan underwent chemotherapy treatment, but died at her Southern California home in 1990.


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