In my humble opinion, some of the best female singers of the 50s are Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Carmen McCrae, Doris Day and Dinah Washington. But that’s just scratching the surface of an amazing list of talented singers. So without further ado, let’s discuss some of our favorite female singers from the 1950s!
Female Singers of the 50s We Love
Let’s begin with Eartha Kitt.
1. Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt’s rise to fame in the 50s was as remarkable as her lion purr and use of hammer vibrato. The elegant and versatile performer starred opposite Orson Welles in Dr. Faustus in 1950, and appeared in numerous films. Her iconic hit “Santa Baby” was released in 1953, and her 1956 autobiography Thursday’s Child inspired a teenage David Bowie.
Kitt sang in eleven languages and was fluent in at least four. In the following decade, Kitt would make headlines starring as Catwoman in Batman and for speaking out against the Vietnam War.
- My Favorite Eartha Kitt Song: “Just an Old Fashioned Girl” from Thursday’s Child (1956). Kitt’s comedic delivery of these witty lyrics could have inspired Eva Gabor’s Green Acres character.
2. Pearl Bailey
The vivacious and multi-talented Pearl Bailey took Broadway by storm in 1946’s St. Louis Woman, beginning a long and successful theatre, film, television and recording career. Bailey’s full, deep voice topped the charts with her 1952 version of “Takes Two to Tango.” Her irresistible comedic flair made her a frequent guest on The Ed Sullivan Show, helping break down racial barriers.
In later years, she became an author and theologist. Children of the 80’s fondly remember Bailey as the voice of Big Mama the owl in The Fox and The Hound.
- My Favorite Pearl Bailey Song: “I Wouldn’t Walk Across the Street” from Gems By Pearl Bailey (1958). Bailey’s straight-faced singing adds to the infectious humor of this childishly funny love song.
3. Annie Ross
Annie Ross discovered her love for singing and composing as a child after hearing Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Tisket a Tasket”. When Ross was 19 years old, famed American singer Johnny Mercer recorded her composition “Let’s Fly”. Three years later, Ross was hired to write and perform lyrics to Wardell Gray’s saxophone solo in “Twisted,” a practice known as vocalese.
The result, a comedic take on therapy, became a cult classic, and was covered by Joni Mitchell on her 1974 album Court and Spark. In 1957, Ross formed the influential trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, a group that would become a major inspiration for future vocal sensations The Manhattan Transfer and Take 6.
- My Favorite Annie Ross (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) Song: “Come on Home” from High Flying (1962). Ross’s commanding range, tone and control makes it clear why she was given anchor position on this fine vocalese cover of the Horace Silver tune.
4. Carmen McCrae
Coupled with her sultry voice, Carmen McRae’s laissez-faire style of singing set her apart from the crowd. Following stints singing for Benny Carter and Count Basie, McRae released her debut album A Foggy Day with Carmen McCrae in 1953. In 1954, DownBeat Magazine named her “Best New Female Vocalist,” and in 1957 she released an album of duets recorded with her Decca Records labelmate, up-and-coming talent, Sammy Davis, Jr. Throughout her 50-year career, McRae made frequent television and Monterey Jazz Festival appearances.
- My Favorite Carmen McCrae Song: “Speak Low (When You Speak, Love)” from Torchy! (1955). McCrae offers playful timing and delicious vocal spirals on this enchanting Weill/Nash number.
5. Chris Connor
Chris Connor’s secret weapons were her crêpe-de-chine voice and her oracle-like intuition regarding note selection. Following a brief run with Stan Kenton’s band, in 1954 Connor released the simultaneous debut albums Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland and Chris Connor Sings Lullabys for Lovers.
Both were commercial successes, and in 1956, Connor signed with Atlantic Records, becoming one of the label’s first white female jazz vocalists. Connor released over 30 albums during her 50-year career.
- My Favorite Chris Connor Song: “All About Ronnie” from Torchy! (1955). Connor’s fragile phrasings on this, her signature song, cast a powerful spell.
6. Doris Day
Young Doris Day’s aspirations of becoming a professional dancer were derailed by a car accident. While recovering, the Cincinnati native unearthed her vocal talent by singing along to Ella Fitzgerald on the radio. Eight years later, Day scored her first number one hit with 1945’s “Sentimental Journey.”
Day also had a natural talent for acting, which, combined with her singing abilities, primed her for a long and illustrious film career. Many of Day’s hit songs came from films in which she had starred, like “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane, and “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” from The Man Who Knew Too Much. Day appeared in no fewer than 20 films in the 50s, and was voted Billboard’s top vocalist eight times that decade.
- My Favorite Doris Day Song: “Pillow Talk” from Pillow Talk (1959). Day’s playful assuredness on lines like “There must be boy!” always bring a smile.
7. Abbey Lincoln
The cool, regal Abbey Lincoln is regarded as one of the most versatile and adventurous vocalists of all time. Her passionate voice and subdued sensuality on her debut album Abbey Lincoln’s Affair…A Story of a Girl in Love made her an instant hit and landed her a role in 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It.
In short order, Lincoln traversed the world of modern, bebop and progressive jazz, molding her voice to the demands of each style. Lincoln was also an avid composer, and released over 30 albums during her 50-year career.
- My Favorite Abbey Lincoln Song: “Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe” from That’s Him! (1957). Lincoln holds the listener in tangy suspense during her interminable bend of the final “thing”.
8. Dinah Washington
Dinah Washington’s powerful voice layered every song she sang with honey, no matter what the style of music. Her disregard for genre stumped fans and critics alike but made Washington a crossover sensation.
In addition to making numerous appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival, she had a hit with her 1951 version of the Hank Williams country tune, “Cold, Cold Heart”. Her biggest hit came in the form of 1959’s pop smash “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” which along with “Unforgettable” and “Teach Me Tonight,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
- My Favorite Dinah Washington Song: “Trouble in Mind” from Trouble in Mind (1952). Washington, a master of the sensual wail, could make even a sorrowful blues song like this sound like a celebration.
9. Ernestine Anderson
When the accompanist at a local talent contest asked a twelve-year-old Ernestine Anderson in which key she’d like to sing her songs, without thinking, she responded, “C”. It was the wrong key. Anderson was forced to improvise melodies, and became a jazz singer on the spot. Her gift for improvisation served her well over the course of sixty-year career.
Groomed alongside Quincy Jones in the Seattle jazz scene in the late 40s and early 50s, Anderson toured with Johnny Otis and Lionel Hampton. By the time her debut album Hot Cargo was released in 1958, news had started to travel about swing music’s next best thing, and in 1959 Anderson was awarded Down Beat Magazine’s “New Star” Award.
- My Favorite Ernestine Anderson Song: “There Will Never Be Another You” from The Toast Of The Nation’s Critics (1959). Anderson packs in plenty spontaneous jabs, hooks and uppercuts in this short and sweet ditty.
10. Connie Francis
With MGM Records planning to cancel her contract following a string of failed singles, Connie Francis went into the studio for what was supposed to be her last session. Francis made every effort to avoid recording the one song her father wanted her to sing but finally relented with just minutes remaining on the tape. When “Who’s Sorry Now?” debuted on American Bandstand three months later, Connie Francis became an international success.
Whether singing rockabilly or heartbreak ballads, Francis got to the meat of the lyric with her evocative phrasings. With help from follow-up singles “Stupid Cupid” and “My Happiness,” by 1960 Francis had become the top-selling female artist in several countries.
- My Favorite Connie Francis Song: “Lipstick on Your Collar” from Lipstick on Your Collar (1959). Francis will you have you rockin’ with confidence as you show your cheatin’ beau the door!
11. Shirley Bassey
When she was a child, Dame Shirley Bassey’s voice was so powerful that her choir instructor would send her out of the room to sing from the hallway. In the 50s, that powerhouse voice and Bassey’s show stopping stage performances landed her a recording contract.
She scored her first hit in 1957 with “The Banana Boat Song,” and 1959’s “As I Love You” earned Bassey the distinction of being the first Welsh artist to have a number-one hit. In 2020, Bassey became the first female artist to chart in the UK top 40 seven decades in a row.
- My Favorite Shirley Bassey Song: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat (1959). Bassey fawns, soars and ends this classic musical number on an epic high note.
12. Betty Carter
Betty Carter always forged her own path. During her tenure with Lionel Hampton’s band, the master improviser eschewed big band swing in favor of scat, much to the bandleader’s chagrin. Carter stuck to her guns, though, and, by the late 50s, had become a dynamo in the jazz world.
Carter recorded with the Ray Bryant Trio and toured with Miles Davis. At the height of her fame in the 60s, Carter retired from music to raise her children, returning in 1970 to become one of the first jazz artists to form her own recording label.
- My Favorite Betty Carter Song: “You’re Driving Me Crazy” from Out There With Betty Carter (1958). I love how Carter drags out the “I” in “What did I do?” and her scat solo is priceless.
13. Julie London
Julie London’s belief that her voice was weak prompted her to sing quite close to the microphone, resulting in an intimate, sensual sound that could trigger off-the-charts ASMRs. In 1955, her debut single, “Cry Me a River,” sold over one million copies.
Though London suffered from stage fright while singing, she charmed cameras with ease, and appeared in such 50’s films as The Girl Can’t Help It and Man of the West. By the time London retired in 1981, she had recorded over 30 albums and starred in as many films and television shows.
- My Favorite Julie London Song: “Cry Me a River” from Julie Is Her Name (1955). London lets the notes slip like liquid velvet through a smoky haze.
14. June Christy
With a voice as smooth as vinyl, June Christy began performing with big bands while still in high school. After charting on hits like “Tampico” and “How High the Moon” with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Christy went solo in 1947. Her 1954 debut solo album Something Cool helped launch the laidback, cool style of jazz singing.
However, Christy could also emulate the crisp tremolo of a horn and swing with confidence. Christy closed out the decade with nine more albums, a world tour, and a number of television appearances under her belt.
- My Favorite June Christy Song: “Whee Baby” from This Is June Christy! (1958). Christy breezes and glides through this toe-tapping tune.
15. Blossom Dearie
New York native Blossom Dearie was often condemned for her supposed improper vocal technique but paid critics no mind. An accomplished pianist, Dearie knew best how to provide space and superb harmonies for her soft, direct voice.
After scoring a hit in 1954 with a French version of “Lullaby of Birdland” as a member of the vocal group the Blue Stars, Dearie went solo, releasing six more albums in the 50s. As a bandleader, Dearie had a keen ear for airy, sincere arrangements, as evidenced on her 1956 hit, “The Riviera”.
- My Favorite Blossom Dearie Song: “Thou Swell” from Blossom Dearie (1957). Dearie’s sublime vocal phrasings are outdone only by the stunning restraint of her piano solo.
Wrapping It All Up
These 15 female singers of the 50s are just a handful of the phenomenal voices that set musical trends of the era. With rock and roll on the rise and female solo country singers beginning to make their mark, the industry was about to hear a lot more from women who preferred microphones to microwaves.
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