Old school music has an amazing charm and quality to it, and there’s no doubt that black female singers of the 60s had a lot to do with that. So in this article, we’re going to count down our favorite female artists that broke the mold in their day and have left a lasting legacy of music for future generations.
Best Black Female Singers of the 60s
Let’s begin with the very taleneted Mary Wells.
It makes sense to open this list with the “Queen of Motown” and the label’s first superstar, Mary Wells. Wells’ life and career were defined by persistence: first, she overcame spinal meningitis and tuberculosis as a child, which left her deaf in one ear and partially blind. But this left no mark on her love of music, which continued growing throughout her adolescence.
She began performing at nightclubs, talent shows, and wherever else she could at the age of 10 and started exploring her potential as a songwriter when she was 17. Fresh out of high school, Wells ran into Motown founder Barry Gordy at Detroit’s 20 Grand Club. At first, Gordy showed no interest in hearing her music.
But Wells’ persistence shone through, as she kept asking for a meeting despite his hesitance. He asked her to sing something right there, so she sang a verse of one of the first songs she wrote, “Bye Bye Baby,” which won her a meeting. Wells initially had the song in mind for Jackie Wilson, but Gordy loved her voice and instead signed her as a recording artist. She released “Bye Bye Baby” in September of 1960, beginning a four-year stretch of stardom for Wells.
She had a hit with “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance,” which put her on the map as the first female Motown artist to have a top 40 hit. But after her single “Strange Love” flopped, Gordy paired her with a new producer, Smokey Robinson. Wells and Robinson were a successful partnership, as evident by their first hit together, “The One Who Really Loves You.”
This song highlighted a different aspect of her voice, bringing out a softer side in contrast to her rougher sound in her earlier music. Wells and Robison would have two other top hits together, the coy and charming “You Beat Me To The Punch” and the witty “Two Lovers.” As successful as some of her work with Robinson was, it was her 1964 hit “My Guy” that secured her legacy.
It’s easy to understand why “My Guy” was such a massive hit. In addition to being immensely catchy and endearing, it strikes a balance between blending her softer side and the vocal character found in her early hits. But after the success of “My Guy,” Wells’ contract with Motown expired. She opted against renewing it, instead signing to 20th Century Fox. She continued releasing music throughout the 60s and had a short resurgence in the early 80s, but the peak of her career was over after she left Motown.
Considering she only had four years with her career in the spotlight, the impact she left on the music industry is astonishing. In addition to the music she released, she paved the way for the future stars of Motown that followed in her footsteps.
And if she didn’t already have enough of an impact, she is also the reason we have another Motown hit: “My Girl” by the Temptations. Smokey Robinson was inspired to write the song after Wells’ biggest hit, intending it as a bit of a joke. But clearly “My Girl” was far from a joke, and so was Wells’ career and legacy.
My Favorite Song: “My Guy.” It may be the obvious pick, but it’s hard not to love one of the biggest Motown hits.
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While Mary Wells may have gotten the ball rolling, the Supremes took Motown stardom to a new level. But as successful as the Supremes were, their lead singer holds an impressive legend of her own. At the age of 15, Diana Ross joined Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Betty McGlown in their group, originally called the Primettes.
The group signed to Motown in 1961, under the condition that they changed their name. While the Supremes released several singles between 1961 and 1963, none of them were hits. But the turning point came in 1963, when Ross stepped into the role of the lead singer.
It’s easy to understand why Ross made the Supremes so successful. Her effortless vocal range that set her apart. Her lower register is full and warm, balancing out her light upper range. She sounds delicate without sounding weak, creating a pure and innocent quality to her voice. “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love” showcase this innocence, adding the charm that made these songs hit.
Her voice conveyed coyness that perfectly complemented the Supremes’ light-hearted love songs, ultimately leading to their success. Ross had an extensive solo career after the 60s, but it was her time in the Supremes that put her on the map and earned the group their place among the top girl groups of all time.
My Favorite Song: “Where Did Our Love Go.” Like many of the Supremes’ greatest hits, this song will end up stuck in your head for days.
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Tammi Terrell was a Motown legend lost way too soon. Most widely remembered for her duets with Marvin Gaye, she secured her place in music history despite having such a short time at the peak of her career. Terrell started recording music in the early 60s, but her career took off after signing to Motown in 1965.
She recorded a version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but Motown producers decided it would make a good duet, so her vocals were stitched together with Marvin Gaye’s. This decision not only resulted in one of the most iconic 60s songs, but also in a fantastic partnership.
Terrell and Gaye continued working together, recording the hits “Your Precious Love,” “You’re All I Need To Get By,” and “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” among others. Their partnership was truly remarkable but was tragically cut short when Terrell died from a brain tumor at the age of 24 in 1970.
Over 50 years after her death, it’s hard not to wonder what her life and career would have looked like had she not passed at such a young age. Her voice was both elegant and joyful, strong and sensitive. Her onstage chemistry with Gaye was unmatched, but she more than held her own as an infectious and captivating performer. She brought so much life and joy to her work, and while her premature death cut a fantastic career short, she left us with some of the greatest gems of Motown.
My Favorite Song: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” By far her most popular song and also the one that launched her partnership with Gaye, it’s a hard track not to love. It’s especially enjoyable to watch videos of Terrell and Gaye performing the song together, as it gives a fuller picture of their fantastic chemistry and sense of humor.
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Known as the lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, Martha Reeves quickly rose to fame during the height of Motown. Like Mary Wells, Reeves’ success can be chalked up to her determination and persistence. Like Wells, she was discovered at the 20 Grand Club. She was approached by Motown’s Artists & Repertoire Director Mickey Stevenson, who gave her his card.
Reeves showed up at the recording studio ready to work the next morning. But when she was brushed off and told that she needed to audition first before she could be a recording artist, Reeves decided to volunteer as an unpaid secretary in hopes of making connections and a good impression. Her plan was successful; first, she started receiving backup singing assignments for artists including Marvin Gaye. She was eventually signed to Motown in 1962.
Martha and the Vandellas released several hits during their time in the spotlight. It’s near impossible to listen to a Motown radio station for 30 minutes without hearing Martha and the Vandellas pleading for “Jimmy Mack” to “hurry back.” Their delightful hit “Dancing In The Street” became one of the biggest songs of Motown, but was far from their only success.
“Nowhere To Run,” “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave,” and “Quicksand” were among several of their top 40 hits. It’s easy to see why Martha and the Vandellas were so popular, as any group with Reeves’ as the lead singer was set up for success. Reeves’ bold personality is reflected in her powerful vocals. The Vandellas’ music was upbeat and energetic, but would not have been nearly as infectious without Reeves’ confidence.
My Favorite Song: “I’m Ready For Love,” which is a joyful celebration of finally being able to let someone into your life to walk along side you.
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While she was known as “the bad girl of rock and roll,” Ronnie Spector’s voice and career was anything but bad. She joined forces with her sister Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley to form the Ronettes. A truly life-changing moment occurred in 1963, when she met Phil Spector and signed to his record label.
At the time, she knew that this relationship would be significant, but had no idea it would completely alter both her career and personal life. Firstly, Phil Spector produced and co-wrote “Be My Baby,” which was by far the Ronettes’ greatest hit. “Be My Baby” has become one of the most famous songs of the 60s and went on to inspire countless other musicians, including Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
And for good reason – the song is not only immensely catchy but is perfectly suited for Ronnie Spector’s voice. But the impact Phil Spector had on her life didn’t stop at the Ronettes’ greatest hits. Phil and Ronnie Spector quickly fell for each other upon meeting and were married in 1968.
Unfortunately, the Spector’s marriage was tumultuous, as Ronnie suffered abuse at the hands of Phil. She wrote about her experience in her memoir Be My Baby, after she was able to divorce Phil Spector in 1974. Despite the horrors she faced in her marriage, she still maintained her strong spirit and brilliant sense of humor.
Her “bad girl” nickname did come honestly – she had a mischievous energy that followed her throughout her life. She was bold and confident, but still was an effortless performer with an easygoing charm. Her resonant voice was unique and stood out in an era dominated by girl groups. Despite the astonishing success of “Be My Baby,” a lot of the Ronettes’ and Ronnie Spector’s solo music has flown under the radar. But even if the world just knew her through “Be My Baby,” they got a glimpse of one of the most delightful voices of the 60s.
My Favorite Song: “Walking In The Rain,” which is a delightful track that daydreams about falling in love with the perfect person. The sound effects add a charming layer that complements Spector’s voice, which is showcased at its best in this song.
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With an impressive career that extended far past the 60s, it is easy to understand why Dionne Warwick would rank among the best singers of the decade. Warwick found her voice singing gospel in church. As a teenager, she joined the Gospelaires and began performing as a backup signer for recording artist. It was at these recording sessions where she formed an extremely important partnership with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Bacharach and David would write many of Warwick’s biggest hits, including “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Alfie,” and “Anyone Who Had A Heart.” They also wrote her 1963 hit “Walk On By,” a sophisticated reflection of a breakup that captures Warwick’s elegance. Warwick continued recording songs by Bacharach and David until the early 70s, when she split with them to pursue other music endeavors. She has released an extensive catalogue of music that spanned genres and is still touring 60+ years after the start of her career.
Right from her first single, “Don’t Make Me Over,” it was immediately clear that Warwick’s individuality and self-assuredness would set her are apart from the crowd. She is refined and polished but has maintained a strong sense of humor and a radiant energy. When asked in an interview what she thought it meant to be successful, Warwick replied “happy in your skin.” Both by music charts and by her own definition, it is clear that Dionne Warwick has become one of the most successful singers of the late 20th century.
My Favorite Song: “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” While it’s a challenge to pick a favorite, this power-ballad has a way of capturing your heart.
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How could this list be complete without the “Queen of Soul” herself, Aretha Franklin?
Franklin grew up singing gospel, recording her first album Songs of Faith in 1956. The album was recorded live in her church with Franklin accompanying herself on the piano. She was only 14 when she recorded this album, but she already could have claimed her royal title. Her raw talent and musical brilliance were already apparent, and she still had 12 years before her career would take off.
She was first signed to Columbia in 1960, but it wasn’t until she signed to Atlantic in 1966 that she started getting the recognition she deserved. In 1967, she had her first hit “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).” While some considered her to be shy, her music indicated otherwise.
“I Never Loved A Man” was the first of many of Franklin’s songs that showcased assertiveness and confidence. Later the same year, she released a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which quickly became her signature song.
“Respect” became a feminist anthem, and for good reason. Franklin’s performance wasn’t weary, it was fed-up. She wasn’t tired in a worn-down way; she was tired of the way people were treating her, and she was done taking it. Franklin released several hits over the years; “Think,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” and “Chain of Fools” only scratch the surface of her greatest hits. But it was “Respect” that endured and earned her the very thing she was asking for.
Franklin kept releasing music and performing all the way up until 2017, the year before her death. Her whole life, she maintained her raw talent that was punctuated by emotion. In a statement released after her passing, Former President Barack Obama put into words all there is to say about the Queen of Soul:
“Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”
My Favorite Song: “Don’t Play That Song.” It holds the same commanding power as “Respect,” but is also vulnerable and showcases a wider range of emotions.
When her solo career exploded in the 80s, Tina Turner had already been shining in the spotlight for 20 years. In 1960, Ike Turner was set to record another musician singing “A Fool In Love.” But when the band didn’t show up, Tina Turner (at the time, Tina Bullock,) stepped up to record instead. “A Fool In Love,” a lighthearted love song that showcased Tina Turner’s powerful voice, turned out to be their first hit.
The two formed a musical duo – Ike & Tina Turner – and married in 1972. Together, they recorded countless energetic, ferocious hits. One of their biggest hits, a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” is purely electrifying. Turner is a force to be reckoned with, something that shines through in every single one of her recordings.
From their cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” to “River Deep – Mountain High,” the duo’s music was mighty. But behind the scenes, Ike was extremely abusive. The two divorced in 1978, and Tina Turner was standing on her own.
But that isn’t where her story ends – far from it. Her strength didn’t stop at her voice, as she continued to persevere and comeback stronger than ever. She released her wildly successful album Private Dancer in 1984, which contained her smash hit “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
All of the magic from her music in the 60s and 70s remained. Her immense vocal power, magnetic stage presence, and perseverance earned her the title of the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” 60+ years from her professional debut, Tina Turner’s music is still the jolt of energy the world needs.
My Favorite Song: “River Deep – Mountain High.” Phil Spector produced the song, resulting in the track being drenched in his reverb-heavy Wall of Sound. But this makes the song feel as though it is being sung live on stage. If you close your eyes, you can see Tina performing the song right before your eyes.
A breathtaking musician and champion for civil rights, Nina Simone has more than earned her place among a list of legends. Simone began playing piano at the age of 3, and it quickly became apparent that her talent was unmatched. She aspired to be a classical pianist but made a life-changing decision in 1954 when she auditioned to play piano at a bar & grill in Atlantic City.
She was told that she would be required to sing in addition to playing piano, which made her nervous at first. But she needed a job, so she reluctantly accepted the offer. Clearly, she had no reason to be nervous, as word quickly spread of her musical talent. She began her recording career at the age of 24 and spent the 60s reimagining classics like “I Put A Spell On You” and “Feeling Good.”
No matter what she sang, from “I Loves You, Porgy” to “Here Comes The Sun,” she completely made it her own. But it was her 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam” that brought Simone’s activism into the spotlight.
Horrified by the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evans and the Birmingham Baptist Church bombings, she turned to music and wrote the scathing song, calling it a “showtune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” She shifted to a focus on the civil rights movement following the release of “Mississippi Goddam,” and began speaking at civil rights events.
She closed out the 60s with her anthem of pride and encouragement, “To Be Young, Gifted, And Black.” From her full voice and impeccable piano skills to her dedication to equality and willingness to use her platform for change, Nina Simone’s impact on both the music and the world cannot be overlooked.
Favorite Song: “Mississippi Goddam.” It’s hard to imagine a protest song in the form of a showtune, but Simone’s brilliance made it work. The song is extremely powerful but also manages to not sound downtrodden. Nina was not about to have the lyrics get lost to a melancholy ballad; she knew what she had written was bold, but she sung it loud and proud.
Transcending the title of “jazz singer,” instead preferring to be called a “song stylist,” Nancy Wilson had a legendary 50+ year career. She grew up singing in church, and knew even at a young age that she wanted to be a singer. She got her first break when she was only 15 after performing at a talent show, where she was awarded the prize of a twice-a-week television show.
This caught the attention of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who asked Wilson to call him if she was ever in New York. In 1959, she set off for the big city, called Adderley, and was quickly signed to Capitol Records.
Her debut single was “Guess Who I Saw Today,” and although the song was already a standard, Wilson’s version quickly soared to the top. But her career was only beginning, as she released a steady stream of albums, earned her first Grammy in 1964, and began a career in television in the mid-60s. She had 8 Billboard Hot 100 singles in the 60s and went on to release an impressive 70+ albums over her career.
Wilson’s discography and numerous awards are impressive, but understandable considering her talent. Even early in her career, she possessed grace and polish that made her seem wise beyond her years while still feeling fresh and youthful. She was an extremely versatile performer, as she had success in multiple fields in the arts, but also seemed to be able to sing anything and make it her own.
Her voice also held this versatility, as she switched between a rich, husky sound and an intimate, delicate whisper. She struck a challenging balance between maintaining vocal resonance and sounding gentle. On songs like “Sunny,” you can hear how quickly her voice would switch between sounding steady and airy, and then gorgeous and resonant low notes would catch you by surprise.
One of her earliest hits with Cannonball Adderley, “Save Your Love For Me,” didn’t feature her breathy sound, instead sounding full and powerful. Her final album was released in 2006, and her voice had aged like fine wine. She still maintained her captivating voice, which had only become richer with age. Wilson died at the age of 81 in 2018, but her extraordinary discography, career in entertainment, and awards and achievements mean that she will long be forgotten.
My Favorite Song: “Guess Who I Saw Today?” You know exactly from the beginning of the song where it is going, but Wilson keeps you on the edge of your seat. Her gentle inquisitiveness makes you as the listener feel as though you personally betrayed her, something not felt in other renditions of this song.
While the women on this list all have remarkable legacies, this list only begins to scratch the surface of Black female singers of the 60s that were amazing in their time.There are countless other women who have paved the way for the artists of today, and there isn’t even close to enough space in one article to discuss all of them.
This article was written by Carissa and edited by Michael.