As we mourn the recent death of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, we take the opportunity to acknowledge and remember several women singers who defined music genres and paved the way for the many other women who followed in their footsteps. Come enjoy their stories with us.
Soprano opera star Beverly Sills (Bubbles) won her first singing contest when she was three years old. At age four, she was singing on the radio and at age seven, in a movie released in 1938, she sang in her first film. From 1939 on, she sang regularly on the radio and won contests. Her operatic stage debut came in 1947 and she became so identified with opera in the U.S. that in 1971 she was on the cover of Time magazine as “America’s Queen of Opera.” Sills popularized opera through her many television appearances. After her retirement from singing, she served as general director of the New York City Opera, taking it from a precarious financial position to a well-functioning operation. She served as chairwoman of Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. Her many awards include the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Sills has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The first Latina to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, singer, dancer and actress Chita Rivera began dancing in her early teens. Appearing in numerous Broadway musicals, her breakout role was as Anita in West Side Story in 1957. Nominated for a record-setting ten Tony Awards, Rivera received the Tony Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatre in 2018. She has recorded albums, appeared on television, and had roles in numerous movies. In addition to Drama Desk Awards for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, Rivera has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In tribute to her sixty-year entertainment career, contemporary folk music artist Joan Baez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. Her debut at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival was highlighted in the PBS premiere of her life story, which was aired in 2009. Her 1960 debut album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, selected to be in the Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, and honored by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. A committed activist, Baez was singing about the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War in the 1960s. She sang at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Her first album sung entirely in Spanish was released in 1974. She received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. In 2015, Baez received Amnesty International’s highest award, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, in recognition of her leadership in the fight for human rights. Her most recently released album is titled Whistle Down the Wind and she is currently on her Fare Thee Well Tour, which she envisions as the last tour of her career.
Singing at her father’s church as a child and making her first recording at the age of 14, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin signed with Columbia Records in 1960. When she left Columbia and signed with Atlantic, her career began to take off and she recorded the songs for which she is now both loved and remembered. In the late 1960s, she became an international pop star belting out songs including Respect, Chain of Fools, and Think. Franklin had ten Top Ten Hits in 1967 and 1968 and many solid hits for the following five years. Her albums included music considered blues, gospel, pop and rock and in many ways she epitomized the emergence of African Americans during the decade of the civil rights movement. Also a songwriter and a pianist, Franklin was nominated for Grammys 44 times and won 18. She also won Special Grammy Awards: the Legend Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and she received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Honors.
Still active in the entertainment business after more than fifty years, Buffy Sainte-Marie has focused her singing and songwriting on issues of indigenous people. By 1962, Sainte-Marie was touring and performing her songs at folk music festivals on Native American reservations, and at coffee houses and concert halls. Named Billboard Magazine’s Best New Artist, her 1964 song Now That The Buffalo’s Gone is one of her trademarks. Her song Mister Can’t You See became a Top 40 hit in the U.S. in 1972. Sainte-Marie has appeared on multiple television shows and won an Academy Award for the song Up Where We Belong for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. She has received many honorary degrees, been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. Sainte-Marie has also received honors both for her social activism and work in education.
In this article we have shared stories of women singers who are in folk, rock, opera, blues, and more! Our final but brief look is at Carole King. King is well known for her singing and performing strengths and abilities. She is also an inexhaustible song writer and has sold her work to many other men and women artists throughout the years. She is perhaps the most prolific award-winning pop song writer. Beautiful: The Carol King Musical is currently playing at many venues around the country; it is a rousing song-fest/tribute to her life and work.
Women’s accomplishments affect our lives in so many ways including in the arts and in our culture. The women profiled above and many other women, almost all of them women who we have not heard about nor learned about in school, across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history!
Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.