The 1950s were a classic decade for black female singers, introducing the world to some of the biggest musical legends the world has ever known. Aside from incredible talent, many of the most famous women of the era were also powerful and inspiring, overcoming tremendous adversity to rise to glorious heights of stardom.
Are you interested in learning more about the top singers from the decade? Here’s a rundown of six popular black female singers of the 50s and their most famous hits.
Dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald is considered one of history’s greatest singers, winning accolades that included 14 Grammys, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1958, she made history as the first black woman to win a Grammy.
Born in 1917, Ella’s early life was filled with hardships. Her mother, unfortunitly, passed away suddenly in a car accident when she was only 15. After later fleeing from an abusive stepfather, she worked for the Mafia and performed other odd jobs until eventually finding herself on stage at the Apollo Theater, where she competed in their Amateur Night and won first place.
By the age of 17, she was well on her way to superstardom, performing in bands before eventually embarking on a successful solo career. Some of her most famous hits include “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”, and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”.
Born in 1924 to a deeply religious family in New Jersey, Sarah Vaughan started singing at a young age in her local church. By the time she was a teenager, she was sneaking into New Jersey nightclubs to sing on stage.
While she found modest success singing with bands throughout the 1940s, she came into superstardom starting in 1953. Aside from numerous hit songs, she was also famous for her WMGM radio program, Songs by Sarah Vaughan, a 15-minute show which aired Wednesday through Sunday evening live from The Clique Club.
Her hits included “I’m Crazy to Love You”, “That Lucky Old Son”, and “My Tormented Heart”. She had her first gold record in 1959 with the song “Broken Hearted Melody”, a song she frequently referred to as “corny.” In total, she won an NEA Jazz Masters Award and four Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dinah is known for her incredible voice and unique musical style, which blended elements of R&B, blues, and even pop. Born in 1923, she got her start singing gospel music for the St. Luke’s Baptist Church in Chicago.
Success came gradually for Dinah, who recorded 12 songs for Apollo Records in 1945. Between 1948 and 1955, her star soared, and she had 27 top ten hits, cementing her place as one of the most popular black female singers of the 50s.
In 1959, her song “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” reached number four on the US pop charts. Some of her other hits included “I Wanna Be Loved”, “Ain’t Misbehavin”, and “Cold, Cold Heart”. She also performed two numbers in what’s called the Dirty Blues genre, “Long John Blues” and “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” (a double entendre about a trombone player).
Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday was a jazz legend known for her one-of-a-kind voice and dazzling improvisational skills. She began her singing career in Harlem, where a record producer discovered her and helped her find mainstream success.
Her first commercial hit was “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, followed by a string of other successes throughout the 40s and 50s. But her life was beset by legal troubles, relationship woes, and drug abuse. In 1958, she released her final album, Lady in Stain, before dying a year later from cirrhosis at the age of 44.
Although her star only shined for a brief period, it shined brightly, and she was one of the most famous African American singers from the 50s. Some of her most well-known hits include “God Bless the Child”, “Lover Man”, “Strange Fruit”, and “No More”.
Known for a deep, powerful voice that could fill a room, Etta James is a legendary singer who mixed elements from blues, soul, gospel, and rock and roll. She won six Grammys, 17 Blues Music Awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Hall of Fame, and Blues Hall of Fame.
Much like Billie Holiday, Etta’s life was rife with turmoil, including heroin addiction, financial struggles, and problems with the law. In her later years, she was struck with both Alzheimer’s and leukemia, eventually passing away in 2012 just shy of her 74th birthday.
Her career peaked in the late 50s and early 60s, where she found fame with songs such as “Dance With Me”, “Henry”, “Good Rockin’ Daddy”, and “Spoonful”.
The Queen of Soul had such a long and legendary career it’s easy to overlook her early success in the 50s. When she was only 12, she toured the country as part of a gospel caravan that sang at churches. Her first single, “Never Grow Old”, was also released that year.
At the age of 16, Aretha was touring with Dr. Martin Luthor King and had befriended two important mentors, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke.
By 1960, 18-year-old Aretha had relocated to New York, where she released hit after hit for several decades. Some of her most notable songs include “Runnin’ Out of Fools”, “Cry Like a Baby”, and “Won’t Be Long”. In total, she had 112 charted singles, earning both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Best Black Female Singers Of The 50s, Final Thoughts
The 1950s were an incredible decade for black female singers, with many of the popular artists of the era becoming musical legends who are famous and beloved even in modern times. These soul, gospel, and R&B artists performed for sold-out crowds at the most prestigious arenas and sold records all around the world.
While most of these black female singers of the 50s are no longer with, their music lives on, and you can still enjoy their hits today.