Picture this: You’re back in the 1950s, grabbing a bite to eat at the local diner, and there’s a jukebox sitting in the corner waiting for you to insert your coin and pick a song. Who is the singer you choose?
Most might gravitate towards Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry, who laid the foundation for rock and roll during that time. However, despite gender equality still being a major issue, many female vocalists of the 1950s rose to fame and made their mark in history. Here are the 21 best 50s female singers:
1. Patsy Cline
Patsy Cline dominated the country music scene as one of the best female vocalists of the 1950s. She also led the pathway for other female country singers in the Nashville area.
Despite a number of songs in her repertoire prior, Cline’s first big hit was “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Country and Western Charts. Other hits include “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces.”
Unfortunately, her career was cut short after only eight years. Cline suddenly passed away during a plane crash in 1963, but she left a legacy behind, earning herself a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She even got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
2. Judy Garland
Notoriously known for her role as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” Judy Garland was one of the most famous 1950s female singers and actresses.
Her biggest hits include “Over the Rainbow,” “The Man That Got Away,” and “The Trolley Song,” all of which were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Garland also left a legacy and continues her fame through her films. She won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1962 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, more than 25 years after her death.
3. Doris Day
Doris Day was an established singer and actress. She caught jazz musician Barney Rapp’s eye after she earned her first singing gig on the radio program “Carlin’s Carnival.” She sang a notable rendition of “Day After Day,” leading Rapp to suggest using the last name “Day” as her stage name.
She gained fame with her first hit, “Sentimental Journey,” which became a sort of anthem during World War II. However, Day’s breakthrough hit didn’t come until 1955, when she starred as singer Ruth Etting in “Love Me Or Leave Me.”
She also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 and three Grammy Hall of Fame Awards for “Sentimental Journey,” “Secret Love,” and “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera).”
4. Peggy Lee
Norma Deloris Egstrom began singing professionally at the young age of 16 in 1936. She sang for KOVC radio in Valley City and eventually obtained her own 15-minute Saturday radio segment. One year later, after auditioning for WDAY in Fargo, radio personality Ken Kennedy gave her the stage name Peggy Lee.
Lee’s rise to fame took several years. Her first no. 1 single “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” was released in 1942, quickly followed by “Why Don’t You Do Right?” a year later, which sold over a million copies, spurring her to stardom.
Lee’s career as a singer, songwriter, and actress spanned six decades. She was nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning one for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for her song, “Is That All There Is?” in 1969. She was another one of the female vocalists of the 1950s to get a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
5. Ella Fitzgerald
Often referred to as the “Queen of Jazz” or “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz singer from Virginia. After a tough experience during adolescence and a rough start to her career, she took comfort in performing with Chick Webb And His Orchestra. Her 1938 rendition of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” brought them into the spotlight. After Webb’s death, Fitzgerald took over as band leader while performing with the Benny Goodman orchestra and working on her own side project.
In 1945, her career took flight with a scat recording of “Flying Home.” When she reached a point of stagnation with her music, she turned to a new manager, Norman Ganz, who developed Verve records around her. Together, they created “Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book,” the first of eight songbooks Fitzgerald recorded at Verve from 1956 to 1964. These songbooks became her most significant and successful pieces.
Though her solo career was phenomenal, her collaborations with trumpeter Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and The Ink Spots formed some of her most famous hits, including “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “Cheek To Cheek,” and “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall.” The singer won 13 Grammy Awards along with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Fitzgerald’s legacy lives on through collections of media and memorabilia in the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Library of Congress.
6. Connie Francis
Well known as the “First Lady of Rock and Roll,” Connie Francis was a pop singer, actress, and one of the best female singers in the 1950s. She became the first woman to hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
She kicked off her career on NBC’s “Startime Kids” variety show in 1953. After the show went off the air, Francis signed up with a record company to no immediate avail. Two years passed before she hit the charts, peaking at 93 on the Billboard Hot 100. This success ended up being too late for her label, which doubted her contract renewal until the debut of “Who’s Sorry Now?” on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” This song became Francis’ breakthrough hit. It reached no. 1 on the U.K. Singles Chart and no. 4 on the U.S. charts.
Her success also sky-rocketed with songs like “Stupid Cupid,” “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You,” and “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” Francis turned into an international star, becoming the first non-European to earn the title of Europe’s most popular artist. During her peak, she gained recognition worldwide as the most successful female singer.
7. Patti Page
Mainly known for her pop and country music, Patti Page topped the charts as one of the best 1950s female singers. She began her singing career at a radio station in Oklahoma, where she embraced the name, Patti Page. When she was 19, she toured the U.S. with a band led by Jimmy Joy. Afterward, in 1947, she signed with Mercury Records as their first thriving female singer.
Her first million-selling single was “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming.” Page followed this up with “Tennessee Waltz” in 1950, which spent 13 weeks as a no. 1 hit in 1950 and 1951. She had three more no. 1 singles between 1950 and 1953.
Page attained a unique sound that most pop singers didn’t adapt to in the 1950s. She blended country music with pop. Eventually, she would gravitate more toward country tunes, finding better success in that genre. The academy honored her with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.
8. Mindy Carson
Born and raised in New York City, Mindy Carson started performing in her teens for the radio show “Stairway To The Stars.” She and Harry Cool made a chart hit called “Rumors Are Flying.”
However, Carson’s career didn’t make a splash until a few years later when she collaborated with Guy Mitchell on the song “Cause I Love You That’s-A-Why,” which made it to the top 25 on the charts.
In 1955, despite music trends moving toward rock and roll and Carson being a pop singer, she managed a no. 13 hit, “Wake The Town and Tell The People.”
9. Dianna Ross
Diana Ross gained glory as the lead vocalist for the best-selling girl group, The Supremes. Motown’s famous act received 12 no. 1 hit singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, including songs such as “Come See About Me” and “Love Child.”
After leaving the group to pursue a solo career, Ross debuted an album in 1970 featuring her legendary songs, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (her first no. 1 solo single). Her solo act took off successfully with numerous top 10 hits on the Billboard charts. Additional no. 1 songs include “Endless Love,” “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” and “When You Tell Me That You Love Me.”
Ross earned the title of “Female Entertainer of the Century,” given by Billboard in 1976. She’s the only female vocalist with no. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 as a solo artist, half of a duet, a member of a trio, and a member of an ensemble. Ranked the 30th best Hot 100 artist of all time by Billboard, she also received a Special Tony Award, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
10. Debbi Reynolds
With a career spanning nearly 70 years, Debbie Reynolds was a singer, actress, and businesswoman. In the 1950s, she made regular appearances in movie musicals.
Her performance of the song “Aba Daba Honeymoon” in the 1950 film “Two Weeks with Love” peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard charts and impressed studio executives. This earned her a slot in her best-known film, “Singin’ In The Rain.”
She debuted on Broadway 20 years later in the revival of “Irene.” The show broke the record for the highest weekly gross of any other musical and earned Reynolds a Tony nomination. She also performed in “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Woman Of The Year,” and “The Unmistakable Molly Brown.”
11. Dinah Washington
Singer and pianist Dinah Washington was noted as the most famous black female recording artist of the 1950s. She performed primarily as a jazz artist, incorporating blues, R&B, and pop styles into her music. She started off singing gospel and playing piano in church. After winning a talent contest when she was only 15, she began to perform in clubs. One club owner was impressed enough to hire her. This position brought her a visit from Lionel Hampton, who provided Washington with the opportunity to be the female vocalist in his band and perform at the Chicago Regal Theater.
Her recording debut came later that year, and both that record and its successor made the Billboard Harlem Hit Parade in 1944. After Washington left Hampton’s band, she embarked on a successful solo career. She developed 27 R&B top 10 hits within seven years. Her songs “Am I Asking Too Much?” and “Baby Get Lost” peaked at no. 1 on the R&B chart. She also performed at the infamous sixth and twelfth Cavalcade of Jazz concerts at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. In 1959, she presented her first pop single, “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes!” to make the top 10, peaking at no. 4 on the U.S Pop chart.
Washington won a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance in 1959. The academy also inducted the songs “Unforgettable,” “Teach Me Tonight,” and “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes!” into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
12. Toni Arden
Born in New York City, Toni Arden started singing in a big band in the 1940s. She began her solo career in 1949, recording for a major label, Columbia Records. Unlike her father, who belted elegant opera, Arden sang more traditional pop music. Her hits include “I Can Dream, Can’t I?”, “Too Young,” and “Kiss of Fire.”
Arden transferred to Decca Records in the mid-1950s. She created her biggest-selling record there, which reached no. 13 on the Top Pop Singles chart.
Singing seemed to be a family talent. Besides her father, Arden’s brother, Jan, was a singer. During the late 1950s, she performed in nightclubs with him and sang two duets on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
13. Jo Stafford
Jo Stafford began singing with her sisters when she was young. Their first recording was titled “Let’s Get Together and Swing” in 1936. In 1938, the remaining members of The Stafford Sisters joined The Four Esquires and The Three Rhythm Kings to create an eight-piece ensemble called The Pied Pipers. The group dwindled to four members by the following year. The remaining members took an offer from Tommy Dorsey to perform with his orchestra. Frank Sinatra soon joined the band and led them all to the top of the Billboard charts for 12 weeks in 1940 with their version of “I’ll Never Smile Again.”
The group toured across the U.S. for three years, with Stafford making a solo recording on the side in 1941. She also made her public debut as a soloist at New York’s Hotel Astir the following year. After a falling out with Dorsey, everyone seemed to go their own way. Stafford signed to a label as a solo artist in 1944. Some of her most famous hits include “You Belong to Me,” “Make Love to Me,” and “A-Round the Corner.”
Stafford’s legacy in music, television, and radio is acknowledged by three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The academy inducted her version of “You Belong to Me” and The Pied Pipers’ “I’ll Never Smile Again” into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
14. Kay Starr
Kay Starr’s aunt launched the singer’s career when she was only seven by making arrangements for her to sing on the radio after hearing her voice.
After finishing first multiple times in a contest, Starr received a 15-minute radio show. She sang mostly pop and country songs.
She moved around a lot from one gig to another. When she settled into life as a solo artist, she popped out hits like “Side by Side,” “The Man Upstairs,” “Rock and Roll Waltz,” and “Wheel of Fortune,” which was her biggest hit, reaching no. 1 on the charts for 10 weeks.
15. Rosemary Clooney
When she was 15, Rosemary Clooney decided to remain in her hometown in Kentucky with her father and sister while her mom and brother moved to California after their parents’ divorce.
In 1945, she and her sister won a spot on a radio station as singers. The two sang as a duo for most of Clooney’s early career.
She came to light as a solo singer in the early 1950s with her first hit song, “Come On-A My House.” Some additional hits include “This Ole House,” “Hey There,” and “Half As Much.”
16. Betty Clooney
Betty Clooney briefly touched stardom alongside her sister, Rosemary. They were a close duo that sang together.
After winning the radio spot together, they received recognition from bandleader Tony Pastor. He hired them both, and they hit the road, appearing in a movie short with the Pastor Orchestra and recording numerous songs, such as “The Secretary Song” and “If I Had a Million Dollars.”
When Rosemary went to record “Come On-A My House,” Betty returned home. She also had a solo career, but it was far less prominent than her sister’s. She signed with King Records, releasing a few hits, including “Kiki” and “You’re All I See.”
17. Dinah Shore
Born and raised in Tennessee, Frances Shore made her debut as a singer on a Nashville radio station. She kept the stage name after performing the song “Dinah” for many of her auditions.
Shore rose to fame during the big band era but gained even more success as a solo artist. She won audiences over with songs like “Buttons And Bows,” “The Gypsy,” and “The Anniversary Song,” which were all no. 1 hits. She also recorded the infamous holiday song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” alongside Buddy Clark in 1949. Her top hits were “My Heart Cries For You” and “Sweet Violets,” both reaching no. 3 on the charts.
Shore’s legacy was honored with a dedicated street name in her hometown as well as a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.
18. Julie London
With a career enduring more than 40 years, Julie London was a well-known torch singer and actress. A talent agent discovered her while she worked as an elevator operator in a clothing store on Hollywood Boulevard. Because of this, she debuted in the film industry while still in high school in 1944’s “Nabonga.”
She wouldn’t be recognized for her vocals until she performed in an L.A. jazz club in early 1955. Her debut album Julie Is Her Name came out later that year. Billboard awarded her the most popular female vocalist in 1955, 1956, and 1957.
London’s biggest hit was the blues-style jazz ballad, “Cry Me A River,” written by former classmate Arthur Hamilton. The song reached no. 9 on the U.S. singles chart and got inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.
19. Teresa Brewer
Teresa Brewer incorporated a mixture of genres into her singing style to become one of the best female singers of the 1950s.
She was initially heard by agent Richie Lisella, who soon had her signed with London Records. In 1949, she recorded “Copenhagen” with a B-side track titled, “Music! Music! Music!” Surprisingly, the B-side was a smash hit, selling over a million copies and becoming Brewer’s signature song. Another hit, “Choo’n Gum,” made the top 20 in 1950.
She changed labels in 1951 and subsequently released her best-seller “Till I Waltz Again With You” in 1953. She recorded nearly 600 songs and was honored with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star.
20. Della Reese
Discovered by fellow gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Della Reese had her breakthrough upon winning a contest allowing her to perform at a popular Detroit bar for a week straight. She performed there for eight weeks and earned herself a record label.
She gained fame with her 1957 release “And That Reminds Me,” which sold millions and made the Top 20 pop hits chart. That year, Billboard voted her The Most Promising Singer.
Jackson went on to release one of her biggest songs, “Don’t You Know,” peaking at no. 2 on the pop charts. Her album Della and song “You Gave Me Love” received Grammy Award nominations, and she was honored with a Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame Award in 2017.
21. Marilyn Monroe
Last but certainly not least, we added probably one of the most famous 1950s female singers. Though she’s more famously known as an actress, Marilyn Monroe gained popularity through movie musicals and singing films.
She first got the chance to sing in a movie in 1953. She became widely renowned for her performances of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” “When Love Goes Wrong (Nothin’ Goes Right),” and “Bye Bye Baby” in a film adaptation of the Broadway musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Her elegant voice was only part of her legacy. Although she passed away in 1962, Monroe’s stardom lives on.