Some of the most amazing singers the world have ever seen have been black women. And in this article, I’m going to give you my thoughts on the 25 best Black female singers of all time.
In this article, I’m going to go as far back as the early 1900s up to the modern day music scene. And while this isn’t an all encompassing list, hopefully it will give you some great insight and appreciation of black music and, hopefully, encourage you to track down one or two vinyl records from these amazing artists!
Older Black Female Singers (pre-1960s)
Let’s begin with the singer Ma Rainey, who most notably was portrayed by Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
- 1886-1939 (life)
- 1899-1939 (career)
Largely overlooked by the public until the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was released only less than a year ago, this lady is one the OGs, so to speak. Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett was one of the earliest and most influential best Black female singers. Ma was, in fact, immensely popular during her musical career, particularly in the blues-crazed 1920s.
She is widely considered the first true female blues singer to step into the limelight. She brought a larger-than-life presence and hypnotic entertainment to her live performances that got the black community excited for her music and gave them plenty to be proud of.
She was also uncommonly open about her bisexuality for the time, which pioneered early birthing pains of LGBTQ rights in a time when most people weren’t even thinking about that community. Her powerful vocal wailings are perhaps best showcased in tracks like “Moonshine Blues,” “Bo Weavil Blues,” and of course, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
- 1894-1937 (life)
- 1912-1937 (career)
If Ma Rainey was arguably the first female blues singer, then her contemporary Bessie Smith was easily the most popular of any female blues singer during the 1920s and 1930s. Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith began her early days singing in a group that also featured Ma Rainey.
Bessie got picked up by Columbia Records in the early 1920s, which led to her popularity exploding. Though her life was tragically cut short by a car crash at the age of 43, Bessie’s influence has traveled generations, inspiring countless female singers both Black and White.
Her elegant yet achingly passionate vocals can be enjoyed in blues standards such as “Backwater Blues,” St. Louis Blues,” and “Downhearted Blues.”
- 1915-1959 (life)
- 1930-1959 (career)
With probably the most notoriously hard-knock life you’ll find on this list, Billie Holiday had plenty of reasons to sing the blues – and boy can you hear it. With a life that included everything from childhood abuse to serious drug and alcohol addiction, it’s almost unbelievable that Billie Holiday rose up and changed music the way she did.
Primarily looked at as a jazz singer, Billie spearheaded a vastly popular career. Even a brief prison sentence in the late 1940s was followed with a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall shortly after her release. She pioneered a style of jazz singing that experimented widely with rhythm and melody that has influenced singers to this day. Billie was also an outspoken Civil Rights activist, enduring hateful jeering during live performances of her bone-chilling ballad of racist hatred and violence in the South, “Strange Fruit.”
- 1917-1996 (life)
- 1929-1995 (career)
Few would argue that Ella Fitzgerald is not the definitive female jazz singer. With a career that spanned over six decades, Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy has touched pop culture as well as the jazz and blues music scene.
Her singing style was about as close to “scholastically flawless” as you could get. Her diction was flawless, her tone was rich and velvet-smooth, and her iconic scat-singing never missed a beat. She sang with all the greats, from Duke Ellington to Count Basie to Louis Armstrong, and they were all lucky to have worked with her. The timeless stylings of her singing can be heard in tracks like “Summertime,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
- 1911-1972 (life)
- 1928-1971 (career)
Gospel grows deep in the roots in American music, and many would say that a big chunk of those roots belongs to the great Mahalia Jackson. With a four-decades long career, she contributed to the world of Gospel music more than most Black female singers did before or since. She also was an active player in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, singing for many fundraisers in support of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers.
Her presence during live performances was one of passion, intensity, and joy that made her audience feel as if they’ve felt God’s touch for the first time. Her heavenly yet powerful voice can be relished in tracks like “How I Got Over,” Move on Up a Little Higher,” and “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”
Big Mama Thornton (Hound Dog)
- 1926-1984 (life)
- 1947-1984 (career)
Rock & Roll is one of the world’s most iconic forms of popular music, but even the largest phenomenon has to start somewhere. And I’ll give you a hint; it didn’t start with Elvis. Or rather in this context, it didn’t start with Elvis’ version of the iconic “Hound Dog.” That was Big Mama Thornton.
Willie Mae Thornton was an electric guitarist as well as a singer, and her raw aggressive style played a key part in the early formation of the bridge between straight blues and rock & roll. Her rock-roots singing and guitar playing can be heard, of course, in the original (her) version of “Hound Dog.”
Black Female Singers of the 1960s
Let’s now move into the 1960s. And you can’t have a list of the top black female singers from this era without mentioning Aretha Franklin.
- 1942-2018 (life)
- 1954-2018 (career)
You don’t earn the worldwide nickname of the “Queen of Soul” easily. Aretha sure earned it though. Beginning her career as a twelve-year-old prodigy that expanded into a career over five decades long of unprecedented success, Aretha Franklin is an inspiration to singers, musicians, women, and people of color everywhere.
She has earned the top spot on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list. Her hit single “Respect” alone is cemented in out popular culture. I bet you can hear it in your head as you read this right now. She was a key player in the 1960s Civil Rights movement and continued to promote racial equality for the rest of her life.
She sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize! Her singing style could be everywhere from aching and vulnerable like “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” and “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” to the biting power of “Respect” and “Chain of Fools.”
- 1938-2012 (life)
- 1954-2012 (career)
At last, we have arrived at, I’ll be honest, my personal favorite entry on this list. Etta James got her big break in Chicago at the legendary R&B record company Chess Records, which recorded for many other prominent R&B and blues musicians in the 1950s and 60s. During that time, Etta’s popularity soared.
Unfortunately, like Billie Holiday, Etta suffered more than her share of hard knocks. Etta endured everything from physical abuse to heroin addiction to a prison sentence before making a comeback in the 1980s. Her voice was as powerful as a lioness’ roar, yet as tenderly heartbreaking as the coo of a mourning dove.
People are more than familiar with songs like “I’d Rather Go Blind” and the borderline-overplayed first wedding dance song “At Last.” My personal favorite song of hers is “All I Could Do Was Cry.” The convulsing heartache in her voice while trying to remain strong has me weeping like a bride left at the altar after only about thirty seconds in.
- 1933-2003 (life)
- 1954-2002 (career)
It’s hard to put the great Nina Simone into one or even a few musical genres because she refused to stay within any box that people may have tried to place her into. Was she a jazz singer? A blues musician? A pop star? A musical priestess? A classical piano composer? An African roots rhythm machine?
The answer to all the above is the same: yes. Named Eunice Kathleen Waymon at birth, Nina’s humble beginnings as a cocktail bar pianist quickly led to her skyrocketing as a musical artist, releasing over 40 albums in just under twenty years. Despite her success, she struggled with bipolar disorder that wasn’t diagnosed in her until the late 1980s.
She was famous for casting something of an enchantment on her audience during live performances, whether she was singing the ethereal ballad “I Love You, Porgy” or the grimy, blues-influenced ballad “Feeling Good.” She was also an outspoken Civil Rights activist, most prominently heard in her in-your-face political commentary song “Mississippi Goddamn.”
- 1944-present (life)
- 1960-present (career)
Aretha Franklin may have been named the “Queen of Soul,” but Patti Labelle was known to the world as the “Godmother of Soul.”
She began her singing career as the lead singer and front woman of the group “Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles,” soon changing their group name to “Labelle” in the 1970s. When the group broke up in 1976, Patti went on to kick off her own solo career, which brought her more fame and success than she had enjoyed as a group member.
Still going strong with a seven decade long career (wow), Patti Labelle continues to be a powerful and influential figure in popular music. Her dramatic soprano skills can be heard in tracks like “You Are my Friend,” “If You Only Knew,” and “Somebody Loves You Baby.”
- 1944-present (life)
- 1956-present (career)
Motown was one of the most cherished and important music genres representing the Black community in 1960s America, and few figures in that scene were more beloved or respected than Diana Ross. Her musical career took off as the lead singer of Detroit’s Motown “The Supremes,” which not only was the most successful Motown act in the 1960s, but the most commercially successful all-girl music group of all time.
If that wasn’t quite enough awesomeness already, Diana Ross moved on from The Supremes to launch an insanely successful career in not only music but in film, theatre, and television. So far, her career has spanned over six decades, and she has shown no signs of retirement. Her singing style that has influenced countless pop artists, including Michael Jackson, can be heard in her timeless classics like “Baby Love,” “Upside Down,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Black Female Singers of the 1970s
As we move into the 1970s, let’s start with the Queen of Disco—born in Boston, Massachusetts—Donna Summer.
- 1948-2012 (life)
So…when is Disco coming back, am I right? I may not have an answer for that, but for your best bet to re-live the glory days of disco, pop on any given album by the “Queen of Disc” herself: Donna Summer. After an early career in New York City and several years performing in Munich, Donna returned to America in 1976 to ride the disco wave high. She held a spot in the Top 40 each year for nine consecutive years, which is wild.
Donna sadly passed away from lung cancer way before her time, but she had already become one of the highest selling musical artists of all time, selling over 100 million records worldwide. Her powerhouse energy that charged disco dance floors across the globe can be heard in her hits like “Hot Stuff,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Bad Girls.”
- 1953-present (life)
So far, we’ve covered blues, jazz, R&B, and even disco. Now it’s time to get funky! Who better to lead the charge than the “Queen of Funk,” Yvette Marie Stevens. Most of the world knows her by her stage name, Chaka Khan. The bulk of her 1970s career was spent as the lead singer of the funk band Rufus.
She branched out into a massively successful solo career, but the roots of her sound were laid down in her time with Rufus. Though she struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for decades, she finally reached sobriety in 2005 and has remained thus to this day. With a career spanning over five decades and counting, Chaka Khan’s dynamic vocal range can be enjoyed in hits like “Ain’t Nobody,” I Feel for You,” and “Through the Fire.”
- 1950-2015 (life)
Making your own musical career when your dad is the legendary Nat King Cole sure seems like a daunting task, to say the least. Natalie Cole took that challenge by the throat and thrived with her own distinct, successful singing career. She rose to fame in the mid-1970s as an R&B artist with songs like “This Will Be” and “Our Love,” and transitioned into pop in the late 1980s.
Her greatest success was “Unforgettable…With Love,” which was an anthology of classic jazz songs that her father, Nat, made famous. Natalie tragically passed away from a complicated health issues in 2015, but her legacy lives on. Some would say she is even…unforgettable.
- 1947-1979 (life)
- 1962-1979 (career)
There are plenty of different Queens of differing musical genres, but so far, none of them can claim the title of “Queen of the Whistle Register” quite like Minnie Riperton. Seriously – she might have the widest vocal range of any lady on this list. She was known for effortlessly hitting high notes in the “whistle register,” which basically means most people think they’re hearing the top range of a violin before they realize that they are listening to a human being make that sound.
Predominantly but not exclusively an R&B singer, Minnie Riperton accomplished more in her tragically short life than many others did in a full lifetime. She began her early career as a back-up singer for countless big names at the legendary Chess Records in Chicago before releasing her own 1974 masterpiece, “Perfect Angel.”
She publicly announced her breast cancer diagnosis in 1976, one of the very first celebrities to do so. Four years later, she was gone. Despite her pre-mature departure, her influence as a singer and courage in the face of her mortality inspires countless musical artists to this day.
Black Female Singers of the 1980s
Let’s now move onto singers from the 1980s. And let’s begin with the Queen of Rock and Roll.
- 1939-present (life)
- 1957-2009, 2020-present (career)
Not many ladies can hold the title of the “Queen of Rock & Roll” proudly. This woman certainly is one of the few and proud. Talk about the big guns. Not only is Tina Turner one of the best Black female singers, she is also considered one of the greatest musical artists of the 20th Century. Tina initially gained worldwide popularity as the lead singer of The Ike & Tina Turner duo with her then-husband Ike Turner.
Unfortunately, Tina put up with mountains of abuse at the hands of Ike during their marriage. After she divorced Ike, Tina accomplished the unthinkable and turned her already massive Ike & Tina duo career into a solo career that is considered to be one of the greatest comebacks in music history. 1980s Tina is the Tina Turner that most people know and love.
Her live concerts set record after record for audience attendance. “Private Dancer” is arguably her most famous album, with icons like “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Tina’s singing voice was as beautiful and soulful as it was rough with a natural rasp that perfectly blended rock, blues, and pop. She was also very bold with her sexuality in a way that classy, brave, and confident.
- 1963-2012 (life)
- 1977-2012 (career)
The extent of this woman’s success is a thing apart. With an almost childlike energy and a voice passionate enough to defrost any heart, Whitney Huston shot to the very top of the billboards in the 1980s and stayed there for a long time.
She was only nineteen years old when she contracted to record her first two albums, “Whitney Huston” and “Whitney,” which are still both two of the highest selling records of all time.
Her greatest success hit home when she recorded her iconic single “I Will Always Love You” in 1992, which rose to become the highest selling single by a female artist of all time. Sadly, in spite of her success, Whitney struggled with drug addiction her whole life, which eventually led to her demise. Still, she remains of the most beloved Black female singers in history, especially with hits like “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “My Love is your Love.”
- 1966-present (life)
- 1973-present (career)
How on earth does anyone even attempt to make her own unique, successful music career in the 1980s when her older brother happens to be Michael Jackson? Just ask the youngest of the ten Jackson kids: Janet Jackson. She found a way.
Despite being the youngest of ten, and at least five of her older siblings being mega-famous musical artists, Janet rose to her own form of stardom in the 1980s and has been ruling ever since. On top of being a revolutionary dancer and choreographer as well as a dripping sex symbol, Janet famously incorporated the depth of social commentary in her lyrics along with elaborate live shows. Her singular style is best showcased in singles like “All for You,” “Nasty,” and “Rhythm Nation.”
- 1949-1995 (life)
- 1971-1995 (career)
Phyllis Hyman may have been on this earth for only a short and troubled time, but her musical influence still reverberates. Besides being a prolific pop and R&B artist during her time, Phyllis won accolades for her Broadway run in the musical Sophisticated Ladies (based on the music of Duke Ellington) from 1981 to 1983.
Her life-long struggles with mental illness and substance abuse (which eventually led to her suicide in 1995) could not overshadow her iconic honey voice as smooth as smooth jazz synthesizers in “All Alone,” “Betcha by Golly Wow,” and “You Know How to Love Me.”
Black Female Singers of the 1990s
As we move into the 1990s, we begin with one particular singer that has had such a strong and highly consistent career for 30 years.
Mary J. Blige
- 1971-present (life)
- 1988-present (career)
Talk about versatile! Mary J. Blige has had both a successful music career as well as a successful acting career in film and television. She was integral in bringing rap and hip-hop to the forefront as a popular music genre.
Her hit 1993 album “What’s The 411? Remix” is the very first album to feature a rapper on every track. Her 2006 song “Be Without You” is the most successful R&B/hip-hop song of all time. On top of her pioneering music career, she also has acting credits in numerous films and television shows, from 2012’s Rock of Ages to her Golden Globe nominated performance in 2017’s Mudbound. Her career in both music and acting continues to this day.
- 1967-present (life)
- 1989-present (career)
The 1990s was a good time for R&B singers, and Toni Braxton was one of the elites who led that charge. She began her singing trajectory in her sister’s group “The Braxtons” before slipping off to develop her own solo career. After her first self-titled record was released in 1993, her career took off and hasn’t slowed down much since.
Toni’s signature deep, sultry voice is unmatched—there’s just not many singers who sound like Toni. Capable of making amazing ballads and exciting, fast moving tracks, Toni has capable of doing it all for thirty years.
Some of her most beloved albums are 1996’s “Secrets” with the hit track “You’re Makin’ Me High,” along with 2000’s “The Heat” which includes her famous track “He Wasn’t Man Enough.”
- 1969-present (life)
- 1990-present (career)
Mariah Carey might have one of the most recognizable voices on this entire list. Having a relatively “deeper” speaking voice, Mariah has a full vocal range to hit even the highest notes, as if she was Minnie Ripperton reincarnated.
Mariah burst onto the scene with a self-titled album in 1990. With tracks like “Vision of Love,” “Someday” and “Love Takes Time,” Mariah came out of the gate hitting homeruns.
And her success continued through most of the decade. But Mariah hit a bit of a slow patch towards the end of the 1990s and into the the early 2000s. And her appearance in the clunker film “Glitter” didn’t help. All of the sudden, it felt like the ultimate music diva had become more famous for her misguided career choices than her wonderful music.
But in 2005, Mariah elevated her game thanks to the album “The Emancipation of Mimi.” An excellent album that reignited Mariah’s career, Mariah has gone on to have continued staying power even to this day, which is an incredible achievement.
Black Female Singers of the 2000s
Let’s now move into the more modern era of music. And when you do that, it’s hard to not first immediately discuss the Queen B.
- 1981-present (life)
- 1997-present (career)
These days, you can’t chuck a stone ten feet without hitting a Beyoncé fan. I will forever love her for her grand portrayal of Etta James in 2008’s Cadillac Records, but her power and influence on pop culture is the real reason the world knows her name, and it is undeniable. Beyonce Giselle Knowles initially launched her singing career as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child, one of the most successful all-girl groups of all time.
After splitting from Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé went on to slay a solo career that is one of the biggest pop music phenomena to hit since 2000. Her top-quality material can be heard in 2013’s “Beyoncé” and what has widely been considered her most personal work, 2016’s “Lemonade.” Beyoncé is easily one of the biggest stars in the world today and remains an inspiration and role model to women looking to find their inner strength to tackle life like a Queen.
- 1981-present (life)
- 1996-present (career)
It seems that being a classically trained pianist does have its values in modern pop music. Alicia Augello Cook was only fifteen years old when she signed her first record deal, and her debut album “Songs In A Mirror” along with her hit single “Fallin’” quickly transformed her into one of the biggest female musical figures of the 2000s decade.
Her first live album, 2005’s “Unplugged,” made her the first woman to have an MTV Unplugged album debut to soar to #1. With over 90 million records sold and numerous accolades including Grammy wins under her belt, Alicia Keys continues to be a driving force in popular music.
- 1988-present (life)
- 2003-present (career)
Most of the artists on this list have been American, so it’s a thrill to talk about someone who brought her own unique culture to her music. Born and raised in Barbados, Rihanna recorded her first couple of albums “Music in the Sun” and “A Girl Like Me” in America with a Caribbean-inspired vibe to both.
After her third album “Good Girl Gone Bad,” she shot to worldwide stardom and has stayed there since. She is also an accomplished businesswoman, founding her renowned fashion and cosmetics brand Fenty.
Let’s begin with the unforgettable Aaliayjh.
- 1979-2001 (life)
- 1989-2001 (career)
If there is any woman on this list who was taken from us far too early, it’s Aaliyah. Brooklyn-born and Detroit-raised, Aaliyah married disgraced music producer R. Kelly at age fifteen. Tragically dying in a plane crash at the age of 22, she left behind a legacy and enduring influence on the hip-hop and R&B music scene. And she no doubt earned the nicknames the “Princess of R&B” and the “Queen of Urban Pop.”
Since her death, Aaliyah’s music and memory have been immortalized by Alicia Keys (also on this list) and many others. Some of her biggest hits include “Try Again,” “I Care 4 U,” and “More Than a Woman.”
Aaliyah seemed to be on a great trajectory prior to her death. She had already filmed “Queen of the Damned” and had secured a role in the “Matrix” sequels. It’s hard to imagine what her music career would’ve been like had she lived longer, but my guess is that her magical musical connection with producer Timberland would’ve provided us with many more memorable records.
- 1966-present (life)
- 1979-1989 (career)
Stacy Lattisaw was one of the best singers of the 1980s. And sadly, it’s easy for some to forget her talent and impact because she retired from the music business before the 1990s even began. Lattisaw–who like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder was actually pumping out hits in her teenage years, dropped her very first album in 1979 called “Young and in Love.”
I’ve always felt like Stacy Lattisaw should be recognized as the Ballad Queen (or perhaps Ballad Princess, given her very young age when she was making music). If you needed an amazing ballad performed with youthful exuberance and relentless passion—young Ms. Lattisaw was your go-to choice. Go listen to “Love on a Two Way Street” or “I Could Love You So Divine” as excellent examples and tell me I’m wrong.
Lattisaw was great as part of a team too, like when she partnered with Johnnie Gill to create the memorable “Perfect Combination” record.
It’s amazing to think that Lattisaw quit music before she even entered her prime. But despite a somewhat brief career (if you can call a decade “brief”), I’d argue that she’s still one of the best singers of her era.
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