We all love music, as it has been the soundtrack to our lives since we were kids. And when it comes to the 1970s, black women have no doubt performed amazing songs and recorded memorable albums—be it for labels like Stax, Philadelphia International Records, or Motown. So in this article, I’m going to provide you with my personal list of the best black female singers of the 70s that were absolutely incredible—and deserve our respect.
Best Black Female Singers of the 70s
Let’s begin with Sheila Ferguson, who was the lead vocalist for many years for The Three Degrees.
Sheila Ferguson was the lead singer for several years for the excellent R&B and Soul group The Three Degrees. For a good while, she performed alongside Valerie Holiday and Fayette Pickney (both of who, in my opinion, are deserving to be on this list as well), before the group started to see some changes to its members.
The Three Degrees sang in amazing beautiful harmony—so much so that’s it’s a bit of a shame that they probably aren’t as beloved and revered here in the United States as they are abroad.
Sheila, and by proxy Valerie and Fayette, made some incredible songs together. Their most famous is probably “When Will I See You Again,” which allows you to hear the incredible tenderness in Ferguson’s voice. That might just be my favorite, although I really love “Can’t You See What You’re Doing to Me,” “Take Good Care of Yourself,” and “Woman in Love.”
The 1970s, when it comes to black female groups, is probably most dominated by the likes of The Supremes, The Pointer Sisters, The Jones Girls and others. But, for my money, I might argue that The Three Degrees, at least for a short stint of time, were the best of the bunch, thanks to the talent of Ferguson and her bandmates, and the excellent songwriting and production by Gamble and Huff and their entire team.
Chaka truly can do anything and is all about female empowerment. As we all know, she brought a strong penetrating beat and clear vocals to the genre with “I’m Every Woman” in 1978.
The line, “I’m every woman, it’s all in me” became a doggone rallying call for ladies everywhere. Before that, she was part of a group called Rufus and eventually toured with Ike Turner.
Chaka Khan has so many hits, but ”Ain’t Nobody” definitely struck a chord with fans and has had incredible staying power. Chaka is still releasing music today, and has no interest in giving up her crown anytime soon.
The song Hot Stuff is so ubiquitous, you almost forget it’s a real song. You’ve heard it on TV, heard it in movie trailers, and seen it play in the background of fast food commercials.
Normally, a bit hit like that would be good enough to land you on this list. But with Donna Summer, who originally hailed from Boston, she not only had hit songs, but she’s essentially considered to be the Queen of Disco—and as such, perhaps even the Queen of the 1970s.
Her sexy sultry purring in the 16-minute song Love to Love you Baby is unique and broke the charts, as well. Summer’s legacy continues to live on, thanks to younger artists who not only were inspired by her, but sampled her music.
Are you even alive if you haven’t belted out the lyrics to R-E-S-P-E-C-T?
Franklin’s massive hit song of 1967 almost makes us forget her other smash records from the very same year, such as “Chain of Fools” and “You Make Me Feel Like (A Natural Woman).”
There’s a reason why Aretha Franklin is the undisputed Queen of Soul—her genius was impossible to ignore. But, more importantly, Aretha has left a massive legacy that lives on in so many popular singers of today—most notably Jennifer Hudson, who of course recently played her in a televised biopic.
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It’s not easy being the daughter of one of, if not the best, singer of all time. It’s almost a set up for failure, as if it was a cruel joke that somehow Natalie wasn’t privy to.
But, life is all about what you make it. Natalie Cole would’ve been set up for a massive failure if she wasn’t so freaking talented herself. Sometimes they say talent skips a generation—that’s not the case here.
In fact, Natalie stepped into her greatness confidently and flourished in that role, with one of her biggest albums coming two decades after the 1970s—a collection of covers and standards that were previously performed by her late father—“Unforgettable…With Love.”
Still, one of my favorite Natalie Cole albums comes from the year 1977, entitled “Thankful.” From the watercolor inspired album cover, to songs like “Lover” and “Be Thankful,” Natalie never rested on her laurels or attempted to solely get by on her last name.
“Killing Me Softly” is a song that is ubiquitous—so much so that when Lauryn Hill’s cover for this track hits the radio or Spotify, you might be surprised by how many people have absolutely no clue that this song originates from Roberta Flack (although, technically speaking, it originates from Lori Lieberman).
And while that’s disappointing on some level, it’s impressive on another. Flack’s vocals and individual songs left such a huge impression on future generations, they want to pay homage to her through cover songs.
Roberta was also known for singing in Spanish as well, most notably in her 1969 classic “Angelitos Negros,” a devastatingly beautiful take on racial equality.
When you think of the 1970s, especially 1970s disco, I don’t know if there’s a bigger (or more recognizable) song than “I Will Survive.”
Now, before, I mentioned that Donna Summer is considered to the The Queen of Disco. But, if there was ever any other woman on this list that might take exception to that moniker, well, it just might be Gloria Gaynor.
Gaynor is far more than this track, but it’s undeniable that this song brought Gloria a bigger fanbase. This is also a song that’s been adopted by various marginalized communities as sort of an empowerments anthem for things like gay rights.
That’s a pretty significant legacy for a 1970’s disco tune.
In 1973, Gladys offered us a ride on the “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and boy, are we glad we got on.
Gladys always appeared to have a warm, familiar air about her. She seemed approachable even with an astronomically successful career. Part of that charm had to have some influence on how she moved through the musical stratosphere, and no doubt likely had a hand in how well her music resonated with the people that bought her records and watched her live musical appearances.
Gladys was not only one of the greats, but had relationships with the greats, too. She knew Michael Jackson for decades, as they both started in the industry young. And, since Michael’s passing in 2009, Gladys is on record as saying she still misses Michael everyday.
Big hair, big voice and an ever bigger legacy.
Whether we’re talking about Diana Ross rocking it out with The Supremes; Diana Ross going all out in her solo career, or Ross starring alongside Michael Jackson in “The Wiz,” this woman created the blueprint for black woman to pursue greatness in not just music, but the entertainment industry as a whole.
Diana Ross has a laundry list of hit records, but her biggest achievement probably comes in how many singers she inspired. Ross was such a significant figure, her musical life story inspired a ton of elements in the “Motown: The Musical” stage play on Broadway, as well as the entire play (and subsequent movie) for “Dreamgirls.”
Dionne Warwick comes from a family legend of singers and became one of the most successful pop singers in America. The legend Whitney Houston was her cousin, and Dionne was clearly just as talented.
Warwick became the first African American solo female artist to receive a Grammy for “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” By 1970, she had recorded thirty hit singles and received a second Grammy for the album I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.
A lot of singers reach their golden years and kind of just retire away to a sizable mansion and a well earned posh lifestyle. But Warwick recently released an impressive Christmas album, showing the world that she’s still got it.
The name Tina Turner is synonymous with electrifying performances and high-energy stage presences. As Tina fans, we also identify with her difficult personal life, a journey that played out in public—and through her music.
Her first big hit was “Proud Mary” in the 50s, a collaboration with her husband, manager, and later abuser Ike Turner. Out of a messy and difficult marital journey, Tina emerged with incredible hits like “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
Tina Turner is a singer that was so successful, and crossed so many genres, she could fit onto a list like this for any decade. She’s probably the only singer on this list that doesn’t fit neatly inside a “genre box,” which makes her all the more versatile and impressive.
Okay, we get it—while many people are these days most familiar with Patti Labelle’s pies, her musical talent and longtime success in the industry cannot be denied nor ignored.
Labelle is a soul music queen, and no doubt inspired a large variety of amazing vocalists—from Mariah Carey to Whitney Houston. Oddly enough, Labelle has recently come out to say that she was originally offered “I Will Always Love You,”, but it was thrown into the movie “The Bodyguard” quickly—and of course Whitney Houston crushed it.
Still, Labelle’s legacy—from the girl group entitled Labelle to her own solo career, is so solidified, that she could literally lose one of the biggest songs of the 1990s (I Will Always Love You) to one of the biggest singers of all time (Whitney Houston)—and still be considered an all time great.
When you hear “whistle register,” who comes to mind? You may be surprised to hear that Minnie Riperton was doing it long before Mariah Carey made it popular (or popular again) in the1990s.
Minnie made the colossal chart-topper “Lovin’ You” in the 1970s. This was a song that is so lovely, sweet, and revered to this day, that the singers of today, like Chloe Bailey, are making sultry cover versions of it.
Riperton died at just 31 years old, but her legacy lives on.
While Etta James’s biggest hit “At Last” came about earlier, she enjoyed a strong career in the 70s, transitioning smoothly to putting out a stream of solid rock and rhythm and blues music.
The B-side of “Tell Mama,” for example, was “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a blues classic that was even covered by Beyoncé in 2009. Etta caused a bit of a stir that same year, making a joke about Beyonce that some people took extremely literally, causing many to think she had a beef with the mega pop singer.
Still, Etta James’ records like “Losers Weepers” (1970) and “I Found a Love” (1972) are solid contributions to blues, and she has been touted to be one of the greatest voices of her generation.
Nina Simone is on this list for many reasons. And, while her talent is unmatched, her social activism was just as important. And, when Simone could merge both of these passions, she ended up making unforgettable music that proved to be just what the doctor ordered for black people…and America.
Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine wrote the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which was released in 1970. The song appears on the album Black Gold, and is the longest song on the album (with a run time of 9 minutes and 34 seconds).
Nina Simone’s legacy lives on in artist’s like India.Arie, and recently, the rapper Rapsody released an entire album (“Eve”) dedicated to black women she most admired. On the album, Rapsody has an entire song named after Simone (aptly titled, of course, “Nina”).
Hopefully, you have enjoyed this walk back down memory lane—at least as it pertains to black female singers of the 70s. The decade was loaded with talent, as I absolutely acknowledge that some amazing and talented singers were not highlighted here. This could easily be a top 20 or top 25 list.
Still, I hope this article encourages you to pursue some of these great singers’ music, especially if there are names on this list that you have heard of before, but never actually listened to.
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