There would be a gaping hole in the music industry without the talent and artistry exuded by Black female singers. Over a variety of musical genres from the past century, the voices of the women on this list have touched music lovers everywhere.
All 37 names are notable female singers who exceeded all expectations. These women, listed in no particular order, have cemented their place in music history.
1. Ella Fitzgerald
The First Lady of Song was born in 1917. After a tumultuous childhood, Ella Fitzgerald was still a teenager upon her first attempt at taking the stage. By 1938, she had worked her way up from singing for an orchestra to co-writing the hit that put her on the map. She went on to have a wildly successful career spanning half a century.
2. Billie Holiday
Perhaps the most influential jazz singer of her day, Billie Holiday blazed a path for her unique singing style the likes of which the world had never seen. Starting out in the clubs of Harlem during The Great Depression, Lady Day went on to win awards and the hearts of the public following her premature death at age 44.
3. Etta James
Etta James was the Jane of all trades with her ability to easily switch styles on the microphone. She was a skillful gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, as well as rock and roll singer. “One of the greatest voices of her century” is how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame referred to Etta. Her 1960 hit “At Last” is still one of the most popular songs played at weddings.
4. Aretha Franklin
One-hundred-twelve charted singles is quite a legacy left behind by the Queen of Soul. The daughter of a famous minister, Aretha Franklin was often around other iconic people of the day, including Martin Luther King Jr. and singer Sam Cooke. Those connections helped her rise to notoriety, eventually selling 75 million albums.
5. Diana Ross
Exploding to fame as the lead singer of The Supremes during the 60s and 70s, Diana Ross helped them become one of the best-selling female groups in history. Titled the “Female Entertainer of the Century,” she has gone on to have a successful solo career, selling more than 100 million albums from 25 releases.
6. Whitney Houston
One of the best-selling artists of all time, Whitney Houston started belting out tunes as a child in church. Signed to a label at 19, it wasn’t long before she’d be dubbed “The Voice.” Whitney would eventually sign the biggest record deal ever for $100 million after award-winning albums and singles propelled her career to the top. She passed away in the midst of a comeback at age 48.
7. Mariah Carey
Having the ability to hit up to the 7th-octave range is part of what helped catapult Mariah Carey to the global spotlight during the 90s. Since then, she’s accumulated three Guinness World Records, sold over 220 million albums, and became the highest-certified female artist in the US. Not to mention, the Songbird Supreme aka Queen of Christmas has had the most number-one singles by any soloist, female writer, or female producer.
8. Donna Summer
Earning the title “Queen of Disco” due to her enormously popular singles during the 70s, Donna Summer started out as a member of a rock group called Crow. She broke out on her own after moving to Germany to participate in musicals. Donna went on to sell over 100 million albums, making her one of the most successful artists ever. She was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
9. Tina Turner
Before building a successful and decades-long solo career, Tina Turner was once part of her husband’s group, Kings of Rhythm. Her star power was what got them gigs and gave her the courage to go at it alone. She’s won a litany of awards and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, which might be part of why she is the Queen of Rock. Selling 100 million albums has solidified her place at the top.
10. Mary J. Blige
With nine Grammys, ten Billboard Music Awards, four American Music Awards, and the Icon Award, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul has been busting out hits since the early 90s. It was her first album that was credited for bringing R&B and hip-hop to mainstream audiences. Billboard magazine ranked her as the most successful R&B/Hip-Hop artist of the last 25 years.
Since setting out on her own after being part of the top-selling girl’s group Destiny’s Child, Time calls Beyoncé one of the women who defined the last century. From putting out visual albums to accumulating 28 Grammys, not to mention an abundance of other awards, Beyoncé is the highest-earning Black musician of all time.
12. Big Mama Thornton
Big Mama Thornton’s name symbolized the immense power behind her iconic voice. Two of her songs were covered by more widely known artists. The first became so popular that many didn’t know she had done it first. That song was “Hound Dog,” later covered by Elvis Presley. For her contributions, Big Mama was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
13. Lauryn Hill
Performing as both a singer and rapper, Lauryn Hill started out as part of a trio called The Fugees. After a successful run, she came out with a solo album in 1998 that was a massive, record-breaking hit. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a win for the industry. It debuted at number one and had the highest sales for a debut album by any woman in the first week. It was nominated for 10 Grammys and won five.
14. Roberta Flack
At 15, Roberta Flack was one of the youngest students to enroll at Howard University, where she had been given a full-ride scholarship in music. With a string of hit singles, she had such a way with words that her songs have been covered many times by award-winning artists. In the 70s, Roberta was the first person to win the Record of the Year Grammy twice in a row.
15. Patti LaBelle
You know you’re a standout when your first foray into the music industry is with a namesake group. Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles made music for over a decade, starting in 1959. The Godmother of Soul broke off and has enjoyed solo success since the mid-70s. With decades of a career, she’s sold 50 million albums and has been inducted into four different halls of fame.
16. Bessie Smith
The Jazz Age gave birth to many well-known voices of the time, one of whom was Bessie Smith. Throughout the 20s and 30s, the Empress of the Blues set the stage for what the blues would become by singing about topics that mattered to the working class. Her astounding career was tragically cut short due to a car accident at age 43.
17. Janet Jackson
Younger sister of the incredibly famous Jackson 5, Janet Jackson set herself apart from her siblings by becoming a worldwide sensation in her own right. Performing in one way or another since childhood, Janet came into focus with adult-themed songs. She has sold over 100 million albums, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time.
18. Natalie Cole
Daughter of one of the most popular singers of his time, Natalie Cole had one of her biggest hits by singing a duet with her late father, Nat King Cole. The hit “Unforgettable” alone garnered her seven Grammys. In total, she sold 30 million albums throughout a career that spanned decades.
19. Toni Braxton
The Braxtons was a sister group that was signed by a major label in the late 80s. The group may not have been successful commercially, but member Toni Braxton was. She hit the jackpot with her award-winning solo album. Her voice was lower, compared to other singers around the time. That made her have a sound all on her own that has so far sold 70 million albums.
20. Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys made her first composition when she was 12 years old. And by 15, she was signed by the major label Columbia Records. To date, she’s sold over 90 million albums and was named the top R&B artist of the 2000s.
21. Ma Rainey
Born in 1886, Ma Rainey was a big part of what started the blues movement. Married at 18, Ma and her husband toured and performed with others until they formed a group in 1904. The Mother of the Blues put together over 100 recordings until she died at 53 in 1939.
22. Anita Baker
Anita Baker is the embodiment of smooth jazz and soul. Her sound is so unique that she helped spearhead a subcategory of music called quiet storm. Anita’s career kicked off in the late 70s as a member of Chapter 8. By 1983, she started her solo career and went on to earn eight Grammys and have four albums hit platinum.
23. Minnie Riperton
Minnie Riperton’s most memorable song is “Lovin’ You” because of the high notes she hits. The Queen of the Whistle Register produced quite a bit of music before her untimely death from breast cancer at 31. After her diagnosis in 1976, she continued to record even though she had only six months to live. Minnie went on to live another three years and was presented with a Courage Award by President Jimmy Carter.
24. Dinah Washington
The most popular black female singer of the 50s is Dinah Washington. Before she was a hitmaker, Dinah was singing in clubs at 15. As a jazz singer, she was incredibly busy and recorded 17 albums over nine years. Her life was accidentally cut short but music continues to inspire.
25. Grace Jones
Grace Jones is a Jamaican-born singer who started her career as a model in New York during the 60s. Her androgynous style grabbed people’s attention but it was her voice that made her memorable. Grace’s genres are new wave, art pop, R&B, and reggae.
26. Gladys Knight
An inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, Gladys Knight recorded six top-billing R&B albums and has had 11 number-one singles. The Empress of Soul started her career in the 60s as part of The Pips. Rolling Stone included her in the list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
At 12, Aaliyah was signed by a major label. The Princess of R&B was known for shaping contemporary R&B. She put it together with hip-hop and pop, making a sound that helped her amass fans. Between her first and second albums, she sold over six million copies. Overall, she sold as many as 32 million albums, making her the 27th most successful R&B female singer in history. Unfortunately, during the early stages of what would have been a storied career, Aaliyah died in an airplane crash.
28. Erykah Badu
After opening for D’Angelo in Fort Worth, TX, the Queen of Neo Soul was signed and her career took off. Her eccentric style helped Erykah Badu become quickly recognizable, and her voice is often compared to the likes of Billie Holiday. Her first live album from 1997 went double platinum.
29. Nina Simone
Using her passion for activism, Nina Simone infused her music with deeper meaning. Her style overlapped several genres, most of which being R&B with blues. Nina recorded an astounding 40 albums over 16 years, starting in 1958.
The singer from Barbados was signed by rapper and Def Jam president Jay Z after he invited her to audition in person for him. Since her first single was released in 2005, Rihanna has sold 60 million physical albums and 215 digital versions.
31. Mamie Smith
Pianist, vaudeville singer, dancer, actress, and more, Mamie Smith could do a little bit of everything. Born in 1891, she was born in exactly the right era to showcase her talent. In 1920, she solidified her place in blues by becoming the first African American singer to record in the genre.
32. Gloria Gaynor
The disco era would have not been the same without Gloria Gaynor. She had some of the biggest hits of the 70s and early 80s that propelled her career to extraordinary heights. Since 1975, Gloria has released 18 albums and has slowly transitioned to Christian music from R&B.
33. Chaka Khan
Beginning her career as a singer for funk band Rufus, Chaka Khan has evolved on her own as the Queen of Funk. In 1984, she became the first R&B singer to have a hit featuring a rapper. She’s won ten Grammys and sold 70 million albums.
34. Dionne Warwick
Being one of the top performers of the last half of the 20th century is no small feat, but it’s exactly what Dionne Warwick has done. There’s only one other woman to chart more than her, and she was Aretha Franklin. However, selling more than 100 million albums and having more than 56 singles has still given Dionne a place among the top artists of all time.
35. Mahalia Jackson
After more than 40 years in the industry, Mahalia Jackson is considered one of the most important singers of the century. As a gospel singer, many fans looked to her during tough times in the civil rights movement. She sold 22 million albums, which had a major influence on the future of R&B and soul in the coming years.
One-third of the Grammy-winning trio TLC, T-Boz balanced out their sound with her contralto voice, the lowest vocal range for a female. Together, the group sold over 65 million albums. Her raspy take on some of their more sultry hits led her to many R&B solo projects and an album.
Rozonda Thomas, aka Chilli, is another member of the 90s R&B group TLC. Playing off the low vocal range of groupmate T-Boz, Chilli had a higher range that added real depth to their music. It’s also what helped sell 65 million albums. After the tragic death of fellow TLC member Left Eye, Chilli went on to put together her own solo album.