9 Most Famous Female Blues Singers

14 mins read
Most Famous Female Blues Singers

Blue” is a genre of music. It stands on its own as a color that can be used to describe things such as “the sky or the sea”. It was originated by African American artists in the early 20th century. The first band associated with “blue” is from Memphis, called The Blue Flames, who performed blues music with a vocal style that recalled African Americans from the rural south of that era.

If you like listening to the music of the soul, Blues will definitely pull you. The term Blues originated from the term “blue devils” meaning melancholia or sadness. This genre of music encourages people to make a journey from sadness to hope.

In contrast to earlier musicians who played popular songs and dance pieces, blues was based upon Delta blues and brought more spiritual quality into what had been known as Jazz. More bands came about in Chicago and New York City during the depression era after World War I. Blues was the foundation of all modern American popular music since its inception in the early 1920s.

Today, blues is often mixed with diverse styles of music, including rock, soul music, country music, rhythm and blues (R&B), rap, and hip hop. It is also highly influential in the creation of rock and roll. The 20th century blues-inspired innovations in melody, lyrics, harmony, and instrumentation influenced popular musicians to create many modern styles within both the United States and Great Britain. Modern country tracing its roots back to vintage blues are known as Americana or roots music.

The blues were brought to America by African Americans who continued to develop the music. The earliest was Buddy Bolden, who played the cornet in New Orleans. The first bluesmen also played in bands with banjos, string basses, washtub basses, and mandolins. Early pioneers of this genre include John Lee Hooker, W. C. Handy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and later Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy. The tradition moved into the cities after 1925 because of the Great Migration of African Americans to Northern cities.

The blues were generally played at night. The African-American community of the south did not have many places of entertainment where people of both sexes could go. The blues were an entertainment that allowed people to be out in public. They provided a way for people to forget about their hardships during the day by dancing, drinking, and singing with friends. A number of performers made use of this freedom in their songs. Early bluesmen relied on the same four chords for chords syllables which are known as the “blue notes.” These are E, G, Bb, and F# in order to play in the keys of F, A, C#, and D, respectively.

We have compiled a list of the most famous female blues singers, which are full of up-and-coming, well-known, and even legendary women who have helped to bring this genre into the foreground. It is interesting to note that many of these artists are not considered “blues,” but rather jazz artists who have dabbled in blues music. Regardless, each artist has made an impact on this growing genre and will forever be loved by their fans.

1. Etta James

Etta James “Miss Peaches” was born in Los Angeles, California on January 25th, 1938. She played piano at age three and joined her church choir at eleven years old, where she met the founder of The El Rey Theatre. At fourteen years old, James sang with Johnny Otis‘ Rhythm and Blues Caravan. When she was sixteen years old she started out singing for Los Angeles’ Ike Day’s club while working at a defense plant during WWII. James moved to San Francisco in the early 1950s where she recorded her first studio record for Bob Shad’s Blue Bonnet label in 1952 under the name “Etta Jones”.

Etta James 2006
Source: Britannica, PRNewsFoto/RCA Records/AP Images @ All Rights Reserved.

She was credited as “Cherry” on the record. From there, James went to Chess Records and recorded two singles under the name “Etta James”. In 1960, she joined the Ink Spots’ tour. Throughout her career, James has won 12 Grammy Awards and 45 Blues Music Awards. She has recorded 112 albums, which included over 300 singles and over 3000 songs since the 1950s. Aretha Franklin once described James as “the greatest singer alive”. James is also remembered for her personal life and is often called a “blues legend” and a “soul legend”. She is among one of the most famous female blues singers.

Her career saw its high and low as she struggled with her heroin and later cocaine addiction. After seven years of silence in 1988 she released her album Seven Year Itch in 1988 which was followed by Stickin to my Guns(1990) and 12 Songs of Christmas(1998), Let’s Roll(2003). Her last album The Dreamer came out in 2011 ; the tonal quality of her voice has changed. It used to sound like a little girl’s voice but now it sounds rich and deep and listeners will only feel that she sings with her soul.

2. Koko Taylor

Koko Taylor was born in Chicago, Illinois on June 7th, 1932 as Cora Walton. Taylor started out as a teenager playing the blues in her uncle’s band “The Five Keys.” Taylor married her first husband at age eighteen but continued performing with The Five Keys. Taylor later joined Johnny Ace’s band.

Koko Taylor, Blues musician, Blues singer, Black music, Black History, Black History 365, DDH: Daily Dose of History
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Taylor opened for Elvis Presley in 1958 at the age of twenty-nine but was sacked due to her excessive drinking. In the late sixties, Taylor recorded for Cobra Records under the name “Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine.” In 1969, she was hit by a train while walking across a railroad track in Mississippi. In 1971, she made her first solo album entitled “Woman of the Blues”. Since then, Taylor has won many awards including a Grammy Award. She is noted as being a notable performer in Chicago blues who has also been called a “blues Queen.”

Koko Taylor was the daughter of a sharecropper born in Memphis, Tennessee and she moved to Chicago with her truck driver husband in 1952.  For some time, she sang in clubs of Chicago after that she was spotted by Willie Dixon in 1962. Her first hit single was in 1963, after which she recorded her second in album in 1964 called Chicago Blues, which made her a singing sensation. She toured USA in 1960s and 1970s and signed a contract with Alligator Records in 1975. She released nine albums one after the another and eight out of them were nominated for Grammy.

3. Big Mama Thornton

Mary Francis, known by her stage name “Big Mama”, was born on 11 December 1926, Ariton, Alabama, United States. Thornton’s parents died when she was a young girl and she had to pick cotton in order to survive. She began singing with a traveling medicine show at the age of ten years old. In 1937, Thornton met Roach Smith under whom she learned to play the guitar and started singing with his band called “The Hot Peaches.” In 1950, Thornton moved from Arkansas to Chicago where she performed as a solo artist at the Southside Club.

Source: medium.com, Ken Shane @ All Rights Reserved.

Thornton recorded several songs for Parrot Records but never achieved commercial success due to racial discrimination. In 1952, Thornton recorded “Hound Dog” for Peacock Records as a parody of Elvis Presley‘s version. This song sold more than two million copies and stayed for seven weeks on the Billboard R & B charts. She was also known as a “guitar slinger”, as well as a “blues harpist”. In the early seventies, Thornton performed with the Blues Brothers. In 1973, she made her final recordings under the name “Big Mama Thornton” for Alligator Records. In 2009, she was nominated posthumously for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.

Dixie Hummingbirds and Mahalia Jackson are her inspiration and like a true- blue singer and a preacher’s daughter she started with gospel singing. She has also recorded a gospel record that too with her album Saved.

Thornton has been nominated for the Blue Music Awards six times and in 1984 she was made a part of Blue Hall of Fame. Her song Ball n Chain was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, apart from which this talented singer had penned 20 Blues song. She is considered as a legend by people and today she is also a part of the popular culture

4. Bessie smith

Bessie Smith was born on 15 April 1894, Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States. She began singing and playing the piano at age seven and recorded her first song with her uncle’s band in 1911. In 1912, she recorded “My First Real Love” for Columbia Records under the name “Bessie McDonald”. In 1913, she sang with W.C. Handy’s band as a pianist and backup singer. She went on to record many songs for small regional labels until she received a recording contract from Victor Records in 1924 as “Bessie Smith”, which is now used as her stage name. She recorded mostly rhythm and blues songs which would later influence rock and roll artists such as Elvis Presley.

She was fondly called the ‘Empress of the Blues’ and was considered by the people the greatest Blue singer of her times. She lived and worked during the Jazz Age and she had a huge following. People loved her, they tried to imitate her style.

Smith had a contralto voice which recorded well right from the first session and simply sounded more powerful when electrical recording made its way to the studio. Her style of singing was rough by all standards, and she had both white and black following

Happy Birthday, Bessie Smith | Vogue
Source: Vogue, Photo: Getty Images @ All Rights Reserved.

In 1925, Smith married Jack Gee-Bee, a trumpet player in her band. In 1930, Smith was arrested after shooting a man while trying to protect another woman from being abused. Smith was briefly jailed in Memphis while charges were being pressed. In 1933, she married C.P. Love who became her manager, and had a son with him named Clarence Jr . In 1937, Love divorced Smith and took control of her career along with all of her money. In 1938, Smith sold her house in Philadelphia for $50 to pay off some of the debt she had accrued from various accountants who had been stealing from her for years. She died on 26 September 1937, Clarksdale, Mississippi, United States. In 2011, Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

5. Ma Rainey

Gertrude Pridgett was born on 26 April 1886, Columbus, Georgia, United States. She is most commonly known by her stage name “Ma” Rainey. Pridgett lived with her grandparents until she was ten years old where she was treated with abuse and neglect. She began singing with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels at age thirteen but didn’t pursue music as a career until after she left home on her own at age fourteen. She was also very good at playing the bass guitar. Rainey married William “Pa” Rainey on November 5th, 1900.

Ma Rainey claims that she first got acquainted with Blue Music round the year 1902.She was a member of the First African Baptist Church and begun her career as a professional singer singing in black minstrel shows. Along with her husband Will Rainey she formed the Alabama Fun Maker’s Company but in 1906 joined the Rabbit’s Foot Company. In the year 1914 the she became very popular, but came to be known as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. 

With the gradual dawn of 1910s there was a huge demand for black singers. Ma Rainey’s talent was discovered by J Mayo Williams and she was signed by Paramount Records in 1923. She made hundreds of recordings in the next five years starting with “Bad Luck Blues” which made her quite famous down south.

Like most blue singers of the day, she has penned one third of the lyrics of her song. She was one of the most energetic singers of her time and always a big grosser her band collected $350 while still on tour. She was the one of the most well known classic blue singers which pulled crowds in both urban and rural centers of North and South America.

Ma Rainey around 1923. Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she developed a reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals even before the blues became a nationwide craze.
Source: nytimes.com, Unknown author – https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/obituaries/ma-rainey-overlooked.html @ All Rights Reserved.

She worked at various bars and clubs throughout the south, but her husband’s jealous nature forced her to leave him in order to pursue a career in music. She began recording in 1923, which would eventually lead her to be known as “The Mother of the Blues.” In 1939, Rainey retired from show business. She died on 22 December 1939, Rome, Georgia, the United States. She has been inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

6. Mamie Smith

Mamie Smith was born on May 26, 1891; Cincinnati, Ohio‎, U.S. Mamie Smith, “Queen Of Blues” and “Queen Of Jazz”, was the most famous female blues singer in the world. Her career started when she was just a child and her powerful voice gave her a wide audience.

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Mamie Smith is one of the most famous women in history and has been known to be an inspiration for many people over the years. Her talent for singing could be seen at an early age even though she was born into a very poor family. The blues genre, which she entered into, was seen as a man’s genre. She proved that women could sing the blues just as well as men.

Her record “Crazy Blue” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and her music enjoyed a following in America as well as Europe. Smith was responsible for the dawn of an era called classic female blue where record companies wanted more female singers to record their songs. Smith made her records through Okeh and Ajax Records in 1950s which sold well. She toured Europe with her band Mamie Smith’s Struttin’ Along Review. She died in the year 1946 at New York reportedly penniless

It wasn’t until September 1920 when Mamie Smith made her first recordings of “Crazy Blues” and “That Thing Called Love”. When she released these songs she became the first African-American artist to record a blues song. This allowed her to change the face of the music industry forever and it enabled other African-American artists to come behind her and play what they wanted to play rather than what was expected of them by the music industry.

7. Janis Joplin

Janis Lyn Joplin was born on 19 January 1943, Port Arthur, Texas, United States. A military family made the move from Texas to California when Joplin was a toddler. After graduating from high school in 1960, she went on to attend several different colleges without a clear direction of what to study. In 1964, she answered a newspaper ad that called for an “all-girl band.” She met guitarist Sam Andrew and formed the “Big Brother and The Holding Company” with other members such as guitarist James Gurley and bassist Dave Getz. In 1966, their first album “Cheap Thrills” was released which included Joplin’s notable rendition of “Piece of My Heart.

Janis: Little Girl Blue Is a Portrait of Janis Joplin as a Very Young Woman | Vogue
Source: Vogue, Photo: Redferns @ All Rights Reserved.

She was fired from the band after a performance in San Francisco where she became “intoxicated on mescaline”. In 1968, Joplin began performing with another band known as “Big Brother and The Holding Company” with which she also had a child. In 1970, she would later appear on the album “Last Concert” by The Band. In 1971, Joplin was arrested for heroin possession and sentenced to a year in jail. She was released from prison on parole in 1972. She would go on to record two more albums with her band “Heart of Gold” before overdosing on cocaine and heroin at age 27 on October 4th, 1970, Los Angeles County General Hospital. She was interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 .

Joplin’s short career which was speeded up by her untimely death was marred by drug abuse. She regularly adhered to counselling sessions by social worker and psychiatric Bernard Giarritano . On stage she displayed confidence, exuberance and sexuality which made her a great favorite with the audience. She was a kind of musical scholar and took a lot of effort to act naturally on stage.

8. Memphis Minnie

Memphis Minnie (born Lizzie Douglas, her stage name was given to her by a Columbia Records A&R guy) was a blues guitarist, vocalist, and composer who debuted in the late 1920s. Her recordings are highly regarded as uncommon (at the time) instances of a female blues guitarist. Minnie wasn’t the first female blues singer to play guitar, but she is a remarkable outlier in that most female singers did not record with that instrument for whatever reason. Minnie is unquestionably deserving of a position in the pantheon of great blues musicians.

Description de l'image Memphis Minnie.jpg.
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Listen to her cover of “When The Levee Breaks” on YouTube (much later, a big hit for Led Zeppelin). The tune is consistently enjoyable. Minnie’s performance is dazzling. She’s got a lot of souls too.

At a time when the blue music trailed its highest peak and the country club was dominated by men Memphis Minnie simply broke the ceiling. She was one of the foremost female blue singers and the first to use electric guitar.

In her songs she depicted life as it is passionate and hard in a career which spanned three decades. The energy of her live performances gave her a position next to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

9. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

A singer and guitarist who was heavily influenced by the gospel but unmistakably in love with the blues released her debut songs on Decca Records in the late 1930s. She must have had a significant effect on the next generation of rockers as a guitarist. Her flamboyant, rolling, swinging manner remains enticing. “This Little Light of Mine” is a great song to listen to. Tharpe demonstrates gospel fervor in this song, which is tinged with deep blues. She was one of the finest blues singer.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe tribute
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In reality, Tharpe’s fame plummeted in the early 1950s as a result of her journey into pure blues. Long-time admirers and gospel purists were outraged, but Tharpe successfully continued to perform the music she loved, both gospel and blues. combining the two If you want an added treat, look for a film of Tharpe playing live in Manchester, England, in the rain, at a train station, in front of an enthusiastic and grateful crowd, in 1964. It never fails to bring a smile to my face. I’m confident it will be yours.

She is often described as the Godmother of rock and roll and has influenced a whole generation of blues singers. She used heavy distortion in her electrical guitar, heralding the rise of electric blues. On a softer note, her songs blended the sacred and the profane. She never really left gospel music though her stride into pop world was somehow criticised by the worshippers. Her song “ Strange Things Happening Everyday” sung during World War II became quite famous. She died in the year in 1973 from stroke in Pennysylvania.

This list of the 9 most famous classic female blues singers is just the most notable female blues singers in history. In the past few decades, more women have been exploring the genre, which is credited with being a precursor to rock and roll. There’s no shortage of women who perform this genre! Although many people think of blues music as a male genre, there has been a growing number of women in the industry. Blues singers are sometimes referred to as ‘blues queens’ because they are talented musicians who have helped to shape the genre into what it has become today.

The blues gained popularity in the early 1900s when African Americans created their own music that was inspired by folk songs and spirituals. By the 1930s, Jazz was quite popular among Blues singers because it contained some of the same rhythmic elements found in Blues music.

Most of the Blue singers are full of raw talent as well as have fine guitar skills. The women in this profession are extremely innovative holding fast to their blue components even though some were indeed victims of racial discrimination. Strumming their electric guitars held firmly in their hands these musicians attracted a whole lot of female followers.

Blues has evolved over time and changed along with each era’s cultural influences. In the present days of electric blues-rock guitar, many blues songs are still popular today. Many blues songs have been recorded so numerous times that they are often called ‘classics.’ Songs have been recorded by artists such as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Etta James, Mississippi John Hurt, Lulu Colleano, Billie Holiday, and many more.

Blues song has shaped the history of Rock and Roll music. Rock and roll originated in the late 1930s when U.S. artists started to create an exciting new sound that was inspired by Fats Domino’s R&B records that featured simple piano-driven tunes with ‘rhythm’ guitar lines over a basic ‘beat.

7 Greatest Male Blue Singers of All Time
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