The 60s brought a revolution in modern music, from rock ’n’ roll to folk to R&B, and much more. Many of the most important contributions were made by female singers. These best female artists of the 60s left a permanent mark not just on music but on culture as we know it today.
1. Diana Ross
Ask anyone for the best female vocalists of the 60s, and there’s a good chance that they will say, Diana Ross. This decade-shaping musician’s powerhouse voice is instantly recognizable.
She started her career with the girl group The Supremes, recording with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records. The group got its start in 1961 but wasn’t widely known until they released “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964.
The Supremes were record breakers from the earliest parts of their career. They were the first musical group to have five chart-topping songs in a row. They were also the first black group to perform in white venues. As a youth, Ross had dreams of being a fashion designer, and The Supremes’ glamorous style became their trademark along with their powerful vocals.
2. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin was one of the most talented and influential singers not just in the 60s but the entire 20th century. Her unique style and dynamic vocals helped shape the modern music scene, earning her the nickname the “Queen of Soul.”
Franklin started out singing gospel music in her father’s church before signing her first record label in 1960. But it wasn’t until 1966 that she became widely known. In 1967, she released the album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You.
The most famous song on the album was “Respect,” which remains one of her most well-known and beloved songs to this day. The song was originally written by Otis Redding from the perspective of a man; Franklin took the song and made it her own, shaping it into a powerhouse anthem of confidence.
3. Janis Joplin
Considering how short her career was, it is amazing how much Janis Joplin contributed to the development of contemporary rock and roll and blues music. She is widely considered one of the pioneers of the psych rock genre, which would go on to influence the development of popular music throughout the 20th century.
She used her unique appearance to her advantage, characterizing the flamboyant hippie look of the 60s with feather boas, wild hair, and extra-large glasses. Her characteristic gravelly voice drew on influences of blues and jazz. Joplin was known for her dynamic live performances and her music that seamlessly combined blues and psychedelic rock.
Her first no. 1 single was 1971’s “Me and Bobby McGee”—three months after she passed away from a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Despite her short life, Joplin is widely considered one of the greatest musical artists of the 20th century and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 1995.
4. Brenda Lee
Brenda Lee was one of the most popular and influential singers of the 60s, although history doesn’t remember her as well as many other musicians of the same era. She began her career when she was still a child, performing country music on television.
She became more famous with the emergence of the rockabilly genre during the last part of the 50s. Throughout the 60s, Lee successfully transitioned between genres such as country, rockabilly, and pop. One of her earliest hits was “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” released in 1958. In 1960, her song “I’m Sorry” became a hit.
Throughout the decade, Lee became synonymous with Nashville sound, using orchestral music to provide background for powerful, moving ballads.
5. Dionne Warwick
Dionne Warwick was not only a style icon and famous singer of the 60s but also a pioneer of racial integration in the world of music and television.
Unlike most other professional singers of the time, she was highly educated in music, having studied at the Hartt College of Music on a scholarship. In 1962, she signed on with a recording studio and quickly climbed to the top of the charts. Her smooth and mellow voice made her successful in both pop music and R&B.
Her first gold certification came from 1968’s “I Say A Little Prayer,” which inadvertently became the banner song for families waiting for loved ones in Vietnam. Her 1969 song “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” earned her her first Grammy—she would go on to earn five more.
6. Dusty Springfield
Dusty Springfield was one of the most iconic female singers from Britain during the 60s. Known for her elaborate ballgowns and blonde bouffant, she had a surprisingly powerful voice that was full of emotion.
Like many other musical artists of the time, Springfield played a role in ending racial segregation; she was not only one of the earliest R&B singers in the United Kingdom but also sang duets with black solo artists and groups on her show Ready Steady Go!
Later in her career, she moved to Memphis to record another album. This resulted in her most iconic song, “Son Of A Preacher Man.” The song was originally written for Aretha Franklin before being passed to Springfield. She earned a platinum certification for the tune after it was featured in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
7. Tina Turner
Tina Turner is one of the best-selling musical artists in history and has earned the nickname “the Queen of Rock n’ Roll.” Her successful career has spanned seven decades, earning her twelve Grammy awards and even breaking a Guinness World Record for the biggest audience for a solo performer.
She first appeared in 1957 in the group Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm before appearing as a duo in 1960. Ike and Tina were one of the most popular double acts of the 60s and 70s, releasing songs such as “River Deep – Mountain High,” “Proud Mary,” and many more.
She has won countless awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and not one but two inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also holds the title of the oldest female singer to place in the Hot 100 with 1984’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
8. Martha Reeves
Martha Reeves was an influential singer in several genres over the 60s, including Motown, R&B, and pop. She first started singing gospel music before becoming interested in other genres.
She was working as a secretary at the Hitsville USA Studios when singer Mary Wells could not make it to a recording session. Reeves jumped in to provide the needed backup vocals, giving producers a chance to recognize her talent. She and her group The Vels were hired to back up Marvin Gaye on several tracks, including “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow.” The song became wildly popular and catapulted the group—now called Martha And The Vandellas—to fame.
Throughout the decade, Reeves and her bandmates were pioneers of Motown, paving the way for The Supremes and other groups. They had many defining hits of the 60s, earning them induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
9. Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand’s otherworldly voice has enjoyed a musical career for over six decades, but it all started during the 60s. She released her first album, The Barbra Streisand Album, in 1963.
Throughout the decade, she would go on to release ten more, providing a constant background of classic musical theater and traditional songs while genres such as rock and roll, R&B, and Motown were centerstage.
Streisand largely focused on songs from musical theater, but her breathtaking voice has put her among the best selling musical artists of all time. Despite covering older songs, her style was anything but old; the hold she had over the world and her prolific recording sessions during the 60s meant that she became one of the giants of the music industry for decades to come.
Cher, born Cherilyn Sarkisian, has been such an influential musician that she played a role in the development of music not just in the 60s, but also in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Her career has lasted for six decades thanks to her unique looks, powerful voice, and avant-garde musical style, which has consistently been ahead of the industry.
Her career was supposed to begin as a solo act, but Cher was crippled by stage fright—so she reached out to fellow musician Sonny Bono, who eventually became her husband. They skyrocketed to popularity after releasing their duet “I Got You Babe” in 1965.
From then on, she embarked on a solo career, during which she further developed her signature vocal style. Cher became known for her resonant contralto vocals, unique musical elements, and eventual embrace of digital elements. Her 1998 hit “Believe” featured the first use of autotune.
11. Etta James
Etta James was one of the defining voices of many genres during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. In the latter part of her career, her earlier music was already considered to be standards of blues, jazz, soul, R&B, and rock and roll.
James got her start in the early 50s when she was only 15 years old. Already, her rich contralto voice was gaining her attention, and she released her first single before she was out of her teens. Her early music fused elements of R&B and doo-wop. This type of musical innovation would follow her throughout her career.
Her most famous song was 1961’s “At Last,” which perfectly showcased her rich, intense vocals. James received many awards and honors during her career, including induction into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. She was granted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 and earned her final Grammy for her last album, released in 2005.
12. Billie Davis
Billie Davis might not have been well-known after the 60s, but during the decade, she had a profound effect on music, fashion, and culture. This British singer was instantly recognizable with her hair in a bob, knee-high boots, heavy eyeliner, and leather miniskirts, which she used percussively while singing.
Her career started in 1963 when she was only 17 and recorded “Tell Him.” The song became a hit and turned her into a style icon of the decade. While Davis was best known in her native UK, she influenced the music and fashion scene on both sides of the pond.
Her second hit was 1968’s “I Want You To Be My Baby.” A broken jaw from a car accident slowed her career down, but she continued to be popular in Europe through the 80s.
13. Mary Wells
Mary Wells first began singing to distract herself from the pain of chronic hunger as well as partial blindness and deafness from childhood meningitis.
She began her career as a teenager, first in her church and then in nightclubs. She had early success and signed a record label— specifically, Motown Records—when she was only 17 in 1960.
Over the course of the decade, she was a driving force of the genre and earned the nickname “the Queen of Motown.” She is most widely known for 1964’s “My Guy,” but had a number of other hits throughout the decade, including “One Who Really Loves You” and “You Beat Me To The Punch,” which was nominated for a Grammy. “My Guy” was so popular that it replaced Louis Armstrong at no. 1 on the charts and led Wells to a collaboration with Marvin Gaye. The song has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
14. Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter was a member of the folk-pop group The Carpenters, which gained widespread popularity during the late part of the decade. The group consisted of Karen and her brother Richard.
Though she considered herself a drummer, Carpenter soon became the lead singer. Her sweet vocals were responsible for helping their music become more popular, especially tracks such as “Top Of The World” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The Carpenters were pioneers of the folk-pop genre and helped propel it to the international stage.
Their music dominated the Top 100 charts starting in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, landing them solidly on the list of the best-selling artists of all time. She was also wildly talented as a live performer and recording artist, known for needing only one take per song. Tragically, she passed away in 1983 from complications of anorexia.
15. Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell is considered one of the pioneers of mid-20th-century folk music. Her poetic lyrics, sweet voice, and acoustic guitar accompaniment are instantly recognizable, even many decades after she got her start. Her career started out in the mid-60s by busking on the street and performing in nightclubs, but it wasn’t until she started writing her own songs in the late 60s that she signed on to a record label.
Now, Mitchell is considered to be one of the definitive voices not just of a musical genre but of an entire era. Her airy vocals and eloquent lyrics are known far and wide in their own right, but also for their influence on the development of modern folk music.
She placed 9th on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of Top 100 Greatest Songwriters. Her most famous tracks include “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” and “Both Sides Now,” with the last being covered countless times by other artists.
16. Nina Simone
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon and began performing at age 12. She trained as a classical pianist at Juilliard but was denied entrance to the Curtis Institute of Music because of her race. This ultimately shaped not only her unique musical style but also her role as the voice of the civil rights movement. Simone brought her classical training to the nightclub scene, where she fused elements of traditional music with genres such as folk, jazz, blues, and gospel.
Though she was originally focused exclusively on a career as a pianist, her time in nightclubs led to her singing as well. She had a lovely, gravelly voice reminiscent of blues singers. When she began writing her own songs, her lyrics were often about current events. Her most famous song “Mississippi Goddam” is about the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and was widely used by civil rights activists.
Today, the song has earned a place in the Library of Congress for its political and musical influence. Simone’s unique musical style would go on to influence the modern hip hop genre, including musicians such as Jay-Z and Kanye West.
17. Patsy Cline
Like many other famous singers of the 60s, Patsy Cline started singing in a church choir. But it was a unique childhood experience that she claimed gave her her stunning singing voice. When she was 13, Cline came down with rheumatic fever, which spread to her throat, causing a severe infection. Throughout her life, she claimed that the experience altered her voice dramatically to give it the range and style that she became known for.
Although the earliest part of her career began all the way back in 1948, it didn’t hit its peak until 1957 with her release of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” She gained even more popularity throughout the early 60s, during which time she released several number-one hits, including “She’s Got You” and “I Fall to Pieces.”
Cline’s sweet voice shaped the country music scene of the 60s and would continue to influence its development throughout the decade and beyond. Her most enduring hit was 1961’s “Crazy,” which has been called a country standard. Tragically, Cline died in an airplane crash in 1963 at the age of 30.
18. Joan Baez
Joan Baez wasn’t just instrumental (pun intended) in the 60s music scene for her own musical talent, but she was also responsible for helping Bob Dylan get his start. Some people also give Baez credit for kicking off the New York folk revival. She is widely known for her songs “Diamonds and Rust” and “We Shall Overcome.”
During the mid-60s, Baez was a pioneer of the style of folk music that consisted of an acoustic guitar and anti-establishment poetry. Although she composed her own songs, she preferred to cover other artists, including the then-unknown singer Bob Dylan. Baez herself was already a wildly popular musician, having achieved instant success with her first album, released in 1960.
She continued to be outspoken on topics of human rights, pacifism, and others throughout her career; she was extremely active in the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. She also performed fourteen songs at Woodstock while pregnant with her son Gabriel.
19. Patti LaBelle
Patti LaBelle has been nicknamed the “Godmother of Soul.” She rose to fame during the 60s thanks to her dynamic soprano voice, which was unique in the genre. Throughout the decade, she headed the ensemble group Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells, which propelled her to international renown.
The group had several hits throughout the decade and appeared on Dusty Springfield’s Ready Steady Go! in the United Kingdom. At the end of the 60s, LaBelle left the group, first to join The Supremes, then to embark on a solo career that fused elements of soul, R&B, funk, and rock and roll.
Over her seven decades as a professional singer, LaBelle has become known for hits such as “Somebody Love You Baby,” “You Are My Friend,” and “If You Only Knew.”
20. Cass Elliot
Cass Elliot, often called Mama Cass, was a pioneer of the 60s not just for her stunning solo and group vocals but also for her representation of plus-sized female beauty. She dropped out of high school to pursue a musical career in New York City. There, she became influential on the burgeoning folk music scene as part of the group The Mamas & The Papas. Their first hit “California Dreamin’” was released in 1965.
Voices in the media relentlessly drew attention to her weight, which Elliot had tried in vain to lose. She ignored them and focused on her music while creating her own unique fashion style. She was an excellent live performer, disarming audiences with her rich vocals and electric stage presence both alone and in an ensemble.
The Mamas & The Papas broke up in the late 60s, and Elliot released her first solo album, Dream a Little Dream of Me, in 1968. Tragically, she died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 32.
21. Nancy Sinatra
Nancy Sinatra was the daughter of Frank Sinatra, one of the greatest jazz singers of the 20th century. But she was also an iconic singer in her own right, having earned a music degree at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Throughout the 60s, she was a music and fashion icon, exemplifying the progressive fashion of heavy eye makeup, high boots, and mini-dresses. Her music consistently topped the charts throughout the decade, with tracks such as “Some Velvet Morning,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” “Summer Wine,” and “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”
Her most enduring hit was “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” which was released in 1966 and nominated for three Grammys.
22. Lesley Gore
Lesley Gore was discovered when she was only 16 years old, but her age and inexperience didn’t stop her from becoming an instant success. Her first single, released while she was still in high school, was 1963’s “It’s My Party.” It skyrocketed to no. 1 on the charts and was certified as a gold record.
Throughout the decade, Gore continued to release music, striking a fascinating image to contrast with societal expectations. Though she looked traditional and innocent, much of her music expressed deep emotions, including frustration with society and mistreatment from male partners. She is widely remembered for her 1963 and 1964 hits “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and “You Don’t Own Me.”
Though she continued to have a successful career throughout much of her life, her most renowned songs were released before her 18th birthday. Gore’s feminist attitude as evidenced in her lyrics has been described as a trailblazer for other female singers who rose to fame throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
23. Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt is widely remembered for her acting, especially in her later years. She played Catwoman on the Batman television series throughout the late 60s and later became famous for her voice acting as Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove.
But long before her career as an actress, she was also a successful singer whose professional career ran from the 40s through the 60s. She is best remembered for her 1953 song “Santa Baby,” which is still played regularly during the holidays.
Throughout the 60s, she continued to release music and had several Top 100 hits, including “Mack the Knife,” “The Art of Love,” and “Any Way You Want It Baby.”
24. Peggy March
Peggy March isn’t widely known to history, yet her music shaped the music scene of the 60s. Her most significant accomplishment was her first single “I Will Follow Him,” which she released in 1963 at the age of only 14. It immediately became a top-selling hit, earning March a record as the youngest female musician to have a no. 1 hit. The record has still not been broken to this day.
She was also the first white female singer to have a best-selling R&B single. She released several more Top 30 hits throughout the 60s, both before she graduated high school in 1966. Through the subsequent decades, her career shifted to Europe, and she continued to sing in the United Kingdom and Germany.
Although March didn’t enjoy the kind of renown that many of the other singers on this list did, her records remain unbroken and she is still a beloved singer in Europe.
25. Ronnie Spector
Ronnie Spector was one of many famous 60s female singers who paved the way not just for their stunning vocals but also for their unique style. She stood out from the well-known musicians of previous decades. Not only did she have a rough, gravelly voice and a noticeable Harlem accent, but she was also mixed race, with a white father and a mother who was black and Cherokee.
Spector got her start with the group The Ronettes. The ensemble pioneered the Wall of Sound genre, with complex instrumentals and inspiration from Latin music and rock and roll. Other groups who later adapted this style include Amy Winehouse, Ramones, and The Beach boys.
In addition to their dynamic music and complex backing instrumentals, The Ronettes were widely recognized for their daring fashion style, which was characterized by elaborate hairdos and dramatic eyeliner. This image—along with her musical influence—earned Spector the nickname the Original Bad Girl of Rock and Roll.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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