The female singers of the 40s that left an indelible mark on music are the following: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Vera Lynn, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Marian Anderson, Etta Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Erline Harris, Lale Andersen, Carmen Miranda, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Édith Piaf, and Billie Holiday.
Let’s now take a deeper dive into all fifteen of these artists to discover what made them all so great.
Female Singers of the 40s You’ll Love
Let’s begin with Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
“The Godmother of Rock & Roll,” fused her gospel singing with blues, boogie woogie and country music. Tharpe’s 1945 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was the first gospel song to make the R&B charts, and is widely considered the first rock and roll record.
The pioneering guitarist used heavy distortion, and was a major influence on artists like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. In 1952, Tharpe duetted with country artist Red Foley on “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” the first interracial duet recorded in the U.S.
- My Favorite Sister Rosetta Tharpe Song: “Didn’t It Rain” from Didn’t It Rain / Stretch Out (1947). The accents on lines like “rain, rain, rain” would become a rock staple, and I can just picture Tharpe thrashing the chords on her guitar.
2. Mahalia Jackson
Left to her own devices, “The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer” would have become a nurse or a teacher. But when her aunt with whom she had been living fell ill in 1931, Mahalia Jackson took to singing to pay the bills, becoming a thriving gospel singer. Following the success of 1947’s “Move On Up a Little Higher,” the first gospel single to chart on Billboard, Jackson was invited to the White House by President Harry Truman.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by Jackson’s passionate, authoritative voice, which could bring a people to its feet, and make a nation hang its head in shame. Upon her death in 1972, singer Harry Belafonte described her as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States.”
- My Favorite Mahalia Jackson Song: “In the Upper Room” from In The Upper Room (1952). Jackson’s dynamic range shines on this doo-wop hymn with marvellous harmonies.
3. Vera Lynn
Dame Vera Margaret Lynn began her 96-year career in 1924 at the age of seven, performing in youth cabaret shows. Following stints with various bands, Lynn went solo in 1940 and became a wartime sensation. Her biggest hits were “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll Meet Again,” the latter providing the title for Lynn’s 1943 semi-autobiographical film.
Though rock and roll shifted mainstream interests, Dame Lynn continued recording and performing well into the following century. In 2009, at the age of 92, she became the oldest living person to have a number one album on the UK charts.
- My Favorite Vera Lynn Song: “Dream” from If I Am Dreaming (1956). Let Lynn’s syrupy vocals in this somniferous tune coat you to sleep.
4. Lena Horne
Lena Horne started out at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. A cross-country move led to work on the Sunset Strip, and eventually to Hollywood. In the 40s, Horne became a household name appearing in films like Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. Horne’s voice and her character were elegance and class personified.
During the war, Horne entertained the troops but refused to sing for segregated groups of soldiers. Horne eventually left Hollywood because of the lack of roles being offered to black women, and went on to become one of the most successful nightclub and television performers of the next 30 years.
- My Favorite Lena Horne Song: “Little Girl Blue” from Little Girl Blue (1947). Horne’s sings like a nightingale on this music box take on the Rodgers and Hart lullaby.
5. Sarah Vaughan
In 1942, 18-year-old Sarah Vaughan won a chance to open for Ella Fitzgerald at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Vaughan attracted the attention of Earl Hines, and spent two years touring with his band before embarking upon a solo career in 1944.
She soon released a string of singles including “Body and Soul,” “It’s Magic” and 1947’s “Tenderly”. By the end of the decade, Vaughan had racked up several awards, her splendid operatic control and vibrato earning her the nickname “The Divine One”.
- My Favorite Sarah Vaughan Song: “Black Coffee” from Black Coffee / As You Desire Me (1949). Vaughan’s impeccable phrasing and silky tone are a perfect match for this mysterious, enchanting tune.
6. Marian Anderson
By the 1940s, classically-trained contralto Marian Anderson had already performed at Carnegie Hall, toured Europe and integrated Easter on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But the 1940s were triumphant for another reason. In 1943, Anderson was invited by the Daughters of the American Revolution to sing at Constitution Hall.
Four years prior, Anderson had been denied the opportunity to perform by the same organization because she was not white. The reversal of the DAR’s decision, prompted by societal pressure to recognize Anderson for her talent rather than for the color of her skin, was a major accomplishment in civil rights.
- My Favorite Marian Anderson Song: “All Is Fulfilled” from Great Songs Of Faith (1941). Listeners are treated to the full breadth of Anderson’s voice on this beautiful, chilling aria.
7. Etta Jones
Jazz singer Etta Jones began her recording career in 1944 with the singles “Salty Papa Blues,” “Long, Long Journey” and “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”. Jones’s vibrant, bouncy vocals were at home with swing music but also contained a sad truth that made her an excellent interpreter of heartache. Her biggest hit would come in the form of 1960’s “Don’t Go to Strangers,” which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.
- My Favorite Etta Jones Song: “The Richest Guy in the Graveyard” from The Richest Guy in the Graveyard (1947). Jones’s wily vocal phrasings add an elegant twist to this clever lyrics of this Leonard Feather tune.
8. Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald first came to fame with her 1938 rendition of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a song she would sing four years later in the Abbott and Costello film Ride ‘Em Cowboy. With the introduction of bebop in the 40s, Fitzgerald began experimenting with scatting on recordings like “Flying Home”, and by the end of the decade had mastered the technique, becoming the predominant jazz vocalist of the era.
Over the next 50 years, Fitzgerald would release hundreds of recordings and make numerous film, television and White House appearances. In 1987, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her cultural and social contributions.
- My Favorite Ella Fitzgerald Song: “Oh, Lady Be Good!” from Oh, Lady Be Good! (1947). Ella’s enthusiasm for scat is infectious, and it’s easy to see why she was crowned “The First Lady of Song.”
9. Erline Harris
Jump blues singer Erline Harris only released a handful of recordings in her 14-year career but her mark on rock and roll is undeniable. The Arkansas native’s debut single, “Rock and Roll Blues” was among the first song to use the term “rock and roll” as a euphemism for sex, and her “Jump and Shout” highlighted the use of bass and saxophone. Though neither tunes were hits, the foundation for rock and roll had been laid.
- My Favorite Erline Harris Song: “Dream” from Jump And Shout / Never Missed My Baby (1949). Harris bellows and shouts like a tenor saxophone as she leads the band in this hopping original composition.
10. Lale Andersen
Lale Andersen’s 1939 recording of “Lili Marleen” grew in popularity after a German DJ began broadcasting it regularly on Radio Belgrade. Weary soldiers within range of the station’s airwaves were captivated by Andersen’s sensual voice, and the love song’s nostalgic lyrics. Versions in other languages began appearing, the most famous of which was recorded in 1944 by Marlene Dietrich.
“Lili Marleen” was so popular among Allied and Axis troops alike that the Nazi government banned Andersen from performing it until it had been rewritten with more patriotic lyrics. After the war, Andersen continued recording and performing. In 1961, at age 56, she won 13th place as the West German entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.
- My Favorite Lale Andersen Song: “Unter Einem Regenschirm Am Abend” from Unter Einem Regenschirm Am Abend / Unter Der Roten Laterne Von St. Pauli (1942). This playful air really captures that cloud nine feeling of walking with a sweetheart “Under An Umbrella In The Evening”.
11. Carmen Miranda
Brazil’s Carmen Miranda released her first single “Não vá Simbora” in 1929, and soon Miranda was appearing in films both in Brazil and the U.S. Miranda’s birdlike voice, rapid vocal precision, natural comedic talent, hypnotic dances and trademark fruit hat stole the show in 1941’s That Night in Rio, turning her and samba into international sensations.
By the time of her death in 1955, Miranda had crossed many cultural barriers, appeared in 30 films and released over 100 recordings.
- My Favorite Carmen Miranda Song: “Onde Vai Você, Maria?” from Onde Vai Você, Maria? Carmen Miranda & Sylvio Caldas (1937). This lively samba duet showcases Miranda’s alluring and vocal dexterity.
12. Peggy Lee
The “Queen of American pop music” got her start literally singing for her supper on a North Dakota radio program in 1936. Within a few years, Peggy Lee had become a nightclub sensation, her steamy singing style (a tactic embraced to quieten rowdy audiences) eventually landing her in the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
Her 1943 hit “Why Don’t You Do Right?” turned Lee into a star, and her 1958 cover of Little Willie John’s “Fever” was nominated for three Grammys. Lee wrote almost 300 songs during her career and was the inspiration for the Muppet character Miss Piggy.
- My Favorite Peggy Lee Song: “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” from Songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” (1949). Lee delivers this classic with just the right mixture of nonchalance and aplomb.
13. Jo Stafford
The Great Depression stifled Jo Stafford’s dreams of becoming an opera singer but a booming career in pop music wouldn’t elude the California native. Stafford found work as a backup singer, composer and arranger in the film industry, and was part of the popular group the Pied Pipers.
In the early 40s, Stafford became Capitol Records’ first solo artist, releasing a string of hits like “It Could Happen to You” and “The Things We Did Last Summer”. Stafford also hosted regular radio programs, and despite her aversion to performing live, often traveled to sing for soldiers, who christened her, “G.I. Jo”.
- My Favorite Jo Stafford Song: “There’s No You” from There’s No You / Out Of This World (1945). Stafford’s voice pierces like an arrow, pure and clear to the heart, in this endearing love song.
14. Édith Piaf
Édith Piaf began her recording career in 1935. Fans were entranced by her sorrowful vibrato and by her lyrics, which often spoke of the hardship of street life and of love lost. Her popularity with German soldiers during the war led many to label her a traitor but Piaf used her connections to help POWs escape confinement.
Her 1945 hit “La Vie en Rose” made Piaf an international star, and she would help launch careers of fellow French singers Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour.
- My Favorite Édith Piaf Song: “Regarde-moi toujours comme ça” from Regarde-moi toujours comme ça (1945). Piaf plays with pronunciation to produce a delicate balance of coquettishness and desperation in this remarkable love song.
15. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday’s 1930’s recordings of “Summertime” and the powerful protest song “Strange Fruit” had brought her considerable success but the singer-songwriter’s career was ripe for commercial advancement. Lady Day began recording for Capitol and Decca Records, releasing singles that would become jazz standards like “Lover Man,” “Good Morning Heartache” and “Trav’lin Light.”
Following an argument about money with her mother, Holiday also penned the epic “God Bless the Child”. The success of these 40’s hits ensured the dissolution of Holiday’s financial woes, at least temporarily.
- My Favorite Billie Holiday Song: “Don’t Explain” from What Is This Thing Called Love?/Don’t Explain (1945). This reproach of a cheating lover (which Holiday wrote after discovering lipstick on her husband’s collar) is masked as tender, forgiving plea that’s enough to shame any two-timer.
These phenomenal female singers of the 40s are just a handful of the many that survived poverty, racism, sexism, xenophobia and life during wartime to produce some of the greatest music ever made.
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