Blues music wouldn’t be where it is today without some of the best female blues singers lending their voices to memorable musical pieces. So in this article, I’m going to share with you my favorite female singers that have made blues music so memorable all of these years later.
Best Female Blues Singers You’ll Love
Let’s begin with Bessie Smith.
Bessie Smith is the most legendary and influential female blues singer of all, earning her the title “The Empress of the Blues.” Hits such as “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” made her both a recording and touring star throughout the 20s and into the 30s, until a tragic car crash cut her life and career short.
Smith’s boundary breaking lyrics and regal stage persona celebrated female empowerment and sexual independence during a period when American women’s role in society was dramatically shifting towards liberation.
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As one of the titans of the blues world during the roaring 20s, Ma Rainey was also one of the genre’s first recording stars. Her hit records, such as “Moonshine Blues”, are drenched in the commanding presence that she developed as a touring artist in the tent shows of the South and the vaudeville stages of the North.
Ma Rainey’s bellowing vocals and blunt, no-nonsense demeanor were immortalized in August Wilson’s 1982 play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The stage play was adapted into a successful film that introduced Rainey to yet another new generation in 2020.
Billie Holiday remains unparalleled when it comes to delivering complex, moody blues performances. A star in the jazz world of the 30s, 40s and 50s, Holiday was most at home singing blues numbers of troubled yearning set to accompaniment by breezy saxophonist Lester Young and other jazz legends.
Holiday’s willowy, forlorn tone on songs like “Fine and Mellow” was an innovative new take on blues vocals, diverging from the wailing hits by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey that had previously dominated the genre.
Blue Lu Barker
Blue Lu Barker was a New Orleans native who was known both for her work under her own name as well as her collaborations with her husband, legendary banjo player Danny Barker.
As a lifelong New Orleans resident, Barker helped maintain tradition and lay fresh new paths in one of America’s great music cities during a period where most of the buzz in the blues world focused around northern cities like Chicago. Her greatest hit was “A Little Bird Told Me” in 1948.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe centered her career around the gospel circuit, where she powerfully amplified the blues’ influence on popular Christian worship music and became an instrumental channel for blasting gospel’s influence back on R&B and rock.
She was a masterful guitarist who was one of the earliest to use distortion on her electric guitar, kicking off a whole new era for the instrument. Unlike many gospel singers, Tharpe regularly forayed into pop music, but her recordings of spirituals like “Down By the Riverside” remain some of her finest performances.
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Big Mama Thornton
Big Mama Thornton is best known for being the first person to record the song “Hound Dog.” Her earth-shaking performance gave the song an extensive run on the charts before Elvis Presley turned it into a smash hit.
Like many blues greats, Thornton masterfully fused the spiritual ecstasy of gospel vocals into deeply sensual blues performances. Thornton was also one of the first female American blues singers to tour in Europe, paving new roads for African-American women in the music business.
Ruth Brown’s role in the early years of Atlantic Records was so great that the label came to be known as “The House That Ruth Built.” Brown’s hits, such as “I Don’t Know” and “Teardrops in My Eyes”, were such an adept mixture of blues and the emerging style of R&B that they virtually kept Atlantic afloat in its early years, ensuring that the label would be able to release classics by artists like Ray Charles just a few years later.
However, Atlantic did a notably poor job of ensuring that Brown received the royalties she was owed, leading her to become a champion for musicians’ rights and financial dues later in life.
Koko Taylor was the premier female voice in Chicago blues. Her ferocious vocals showcased a range that even contemporaries such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters couldn’t match. The unabashed roughness that characterizes Taylor’s singing on timeless classics like “Wang Dang Doodle” portray the hard-edged thrills of city living. Taylor is an icon in the mid-century electric blues pantheon.
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During her all-too-brief career, Dinah Washington displayed a virtuosic talent for a variety of genres, including blues, jazz, and R&B. Her regal, dreamy voice was all over the charts in the 1950s with hits like “Baby Get Lost” and “I Wanna Be Loved.”
Washington’s palatial voice conjures a wide spectrum of emotions and feelings, ranging from triumph and ecstasy to heartbreak and misery.
While Nina Simone blended a wide variety of genres into her unique style of playing, a good old-fashioned blues number was never too far down the setlist. More than possibly any other blues singer, Simone fused her musical influences into a radical, far-reaching exploration of African-American identity and history.
All the while, bluesy hits like “I Put a Spell on You” and “Feeling Good” formed the “rootsy” foundation for Simone’s striking musical tapestry.
Tina Turner first arrived in the musical spotlight as the electrifying star of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Her acrobatic footwork and piercing vocals made her one of the 60s’ most legendary stage performers and made blues songs like “A Fool in Love” and “Poor Fool” into hits.
Decades later, she very publicly liberated herself from Ike’s physical and emotional abuse and conquered the charts as a pop R&B star in the 1980s. Turner’s legacy is a testament to female empowerment and raw talent.
Originally hailing from Port Arthur, Texas, Janis Joplin relocated to San Francisco and became the premier blues singer of the 1960s west coast psychedelic rock explosion. While many of her peers in the scene played the blues, none of them could sing with anywhere near the fiery passion that Joplin did on her covers of established blues standards like “Ball and Chain” and “Cry Baby.”
While much of Bonnie Raitt’s music leans towards adult contemporary, she is a blues woman first and foremost. Raitt’s early years in the 70s blues touring circuit proved her skill as both a singer and a guitarist. Raitt’s early self-titled debut, Bonnie Raitt, showcases her unique singing voice and bottleneck slide guitar talents.
While later hits like “Something To Talk About” earned chart success with a pop-friendly veneer, their groovy undercurrent and sparkling guitar work make it clear that Raitt never leaves the blues behind.
Alberta Hunter enjoyed one of the longest careers of any blues singer, bisected by a 20-year break during which she worked as a nurse and scarcely performed at all. While her early years were spent as a peer to the likes of Bessie Smith during the roaring 20s, she delivered a brilliant comeback album with Amtrak Blues in the late 70s and established a performance residence in Greenwich Village.
Hunter’s life and music is a testament to the perseverance and natural talent that great blues singers possess. Her latter day vocals exude wisdom and the kind of passion that only grows with age.
Shamekia Copeland is one of the blues’ greatest contemporary voices, making regular appearances on the charts ever since her 1998 debut album Turn the Heat Up! Growing up in Harlem and New Jersey, she inherited a passion for the blues from her father, singer and guitarist Johnny Copeland.
Copeland has earned no small amount of accolades for her work keeping the blues fire alive for a new generation, including a 2011 performance in Chicago where none other than Koko Taylor’s daughter Cookie presented her with Koko’s crown, making her the new “Queen of the Blues.”
Blues history would be a totally different story without its most talented ladies. This list of the greatest female blues singers takes listeners on a journey through some of the most powerful blues voices in American music history, charting a course through a truly unforgettable musical legacy.