The music scene of the 1960s was dominated by jazz, pop, gospel, and folk artists who paved the way for modern hip hop, R&B, and soft rock.
Women, particularly black women, had some of the biggest hits of the decade. Today, we’re going to talk about ten of those women and their contributions to music history.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the lives of the top eight black female singers of the 60s.
Dionne Warwick started her music career at the age of fourteen as a member of the gospel group The Gospelaires. This led to a music scholarship in 1959 at the University of Hartford, where composer Burt Bacharach discovered her unique voice.
Warwick became the first black solo female artist to receive a Grammy in 1968 for her song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” Although she was not originally a fan of the song, the single showcased her polished, versatile voice and remains one of her most popular songs.
Throughout the 60s, Warwick had over thirty singles, including R&B soul-pop hits like “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” and “Walk on By.” She concluded her success in the 60s by winning her second Grammy in 1970 for her album I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.
Warwick would work with famous recording artists like Barry Manilow, The Spinners, Reba McEntire, and Cee Lo Green throughout her life. She was also a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations and a mother of two sons.
Born in 1939 in Mississippi, Betty Everett became famous in the 1960s for her hit song “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss).”
She was a gifted musician and singer who spent her early years playing piano and singing in her church choir. After moving to Chicago in 1956 at the age of 18, Everett began recording R&B songs for local record labels, even briefly performing with the Daylighters as lead vocalist.
During the 60s, Everett recorded a handful of popular songs, including the lively “I Can’t Hear You” and “Love Comes Tumbling Down.” Her most popular song, known as The Shoop Shoop song, would reach number six on the Billboard charts.
Her duet with singer Jerry Butler, a song called “Let it Be Me,” made it to the top five pop hits of 1964. In 1969, her song “There’ll Come a Time” reached number two on the R&B charts.
Everett spent the last years of her life performing at churches in Beloit, Wisconsin. She died on August 19, 2001, when she was 61 years old.
With her smooth and seductive voice, Barbara Lewis transformed the pop-soul and rhythm and blues genres. A talented lyricist and performer, she would go on to write and sing Top 40 songs throughout the 60s.
She was born in 1943 in Salem, Michigan, and spent her early years writing songs and recording with Ollie McLaughlin, a famous black DJ from Ann Arbor.
Her 1963 single “Hello Stranger” hit number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She followed this success up with the single “Baby I’m Yours,” which peaked at number 11 on the Billboard charts. Her final Top 40 hit of the 1960s, “Make Me Belong to You,” peaked at number 28.
She was a huge hit with music fans in Detroit, Michigan, and was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2016.
Diana Ross was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1944. Her talent was apparent as early as her teens when she began performing with a group of friends in a band called the Primettes.
Later on, Diana Ross became a household name in the early 60s as part of the groundbreaking trio the Supremes. Under Motown Records, this group became the first band in the U.S. to have five number 1 songs in a row. Throughout the group’s career, they would earn 12 number-one hits and are widely considered the best girl group in U.S. music history.
In 1969, Ross made the transition to a solo career. Her songs “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” became Top 20 sensations still enjoyed by music fans to this day. She had a robust and bright-sounding voice and a wide vocal range.
Throughout her life, she would release 24 studio albums and sell more than 75 million records across the world. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes her as being the female artist with the most hits.
As a member of the Supremes, Diana Ross was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Nina Simone was a pianist, a Civil Rights activist, a student of the famous Juilliard School of Music, and a legendary performer who is best known for her mix of popular jazz, blues, and folk songs.
She was born in 1933 in North Carolina as Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She loved classical music, and her original goal was to become the first African American concert pianist.
Simone made a switch to performing jazz and blues in clubs across Atlantic City in the 1950s. She would play the piano and sing. At this time, she changed her name to Nina Simone and began recording under a variety of different labels from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.
Some of her best songs include “Mississippi Goddam,” which was a response to the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, as well as “I Put a Spell on You” and “Take Care of Business” in 1965. She only had one Top 20 hit with her rendition of the song “I Loves You Porgy” from the musical Porgy and Bess.
Simone masterfully combined elements of gospel, folk, pop, and classical music in her work. She notoriously hated being referred to as a jazz singer and disliked her nickname as the “High Priestess of Soul.” Her focus and preference were for the blues and folk aspects of her music, which she felt her playing reflected more.
Simone’s career had its ups and downs over the next several decades, but her deep, powerful voice and important songwriting paved the way for influential artists like Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin.
She died on April 21, 2003, at the age of 70.
Aretha Franklin is known as one of the best African American women singers from the 60s. Known as the “Queen of Soul,” her powerful voice and impressive vocal range made her one of the most honored and beloved musicians of her time.
Franklin was born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, to a gospel singer and a Baptist preacher. She spent much of her childhood years in Detroit, Michigan, teaching herself to sing and play the piano. She began recording gospel songs in the mid-50s at the age of 14, performing them for her father’s congregation.
Her first album, Aretha, was released by Columbia Records in 1961. This initial album brought her limited success. However, she didn’t enjoy true success until 1967 with the release of her album I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You). This album housed her iconic song “Respect,” which catapulted to number 1 on pop and R&B charts.
“Respect” won Aretha two Grammy awards. She also had numerous Top 10 hits, including popular songs like “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
Throughout her career, Franklin would perform for politicians and presidents, be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Detroit, and win 18 Grammy awards. She was added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the year 1987. She was, as many know the first woman to be included.
A lesser-known soul singer in the 60s is Mary Wells. For a brief period, Wells was a Motown star that had a string of successful songs.
Born Mary Esther Wells in 1943 in Detroit, Michigan, Wells grew up in poverty and experienced numerous health issues such as spinal meningitis and tuberculosis. She turned to singing to escape the difficulties and pain of her life, performing regularly in church choirs and at Detroit nightclubs.
She wrote and recorded her first song, “Bye Bye Baby,” in 1960, a song that would peak at number 8 on the R&B Billboard chart and number 45 on the pop singles Billboard chart. She followed up this success with the 1962 number 1 R&B hit “Two Lovers.”
Her song “My Guy” peaked at number 5 in the UK in 1964 and made her an international sensation. This also won her a Grammy nomination, and the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
This led to her being named by the Beatles as their favorite American singer, and she opened for them during a UK tour, the first Motown star to do so. During her short career, she would perform and collaborate with other legendary musicians like Brenda Halloway, Smokey Robinson, Cecil Womack, and Jackie DeShannon.
The mid-to-late 60s saw Wells struggling to maintain the creative and artistic freedom she craved, along with the monetary royalties she deserved, from her record company. She bounced from company to company, producing mostly modest hits, until she “retired” in 1974 to dedicate herself to her family.
Over the years, Wells would record new songs, finding brief comeback success in the late 70s. She was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 1990, which effectively put an end to her singing career. Wells died of pneumonia in 1992 at 42 years old.
She has been nominated to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice and was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2017, she was also inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
Etta James is one of the pioneers of R&B, soul, and rock and roll. Her deep, powerful voice brought her fame in the 60s and would carry her through a lifetime of personal and professional challenges.
James was born in 1938 in California as Jamesetta Hawkins to a single mother who encouraged her to embrace her voice talents. She quickly became known as a gospel star and began performing when she was 12-years old.
James recorded her first single, “The Wallflower,” in 1954 with Johnny Otis and his band. Her solo career began in 1955 as a result of the success of this single.
She was best known for ballads like “At Last” and “All I Could Do Was Cry,” which both ranked high on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Other powerful songs that showcased her stunning vocal talents included the 1968 hit “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” and “Fool That I Am.” She would go on to release 30 studio albums.
Amidst all of this success, James saw her fair share of adversity. In addition to finding herself in some legal trouble for various small offenses, she struggled with a heroin addiction. This addiction would have a hold on her for most of her adult life, and she spent time in and out of treatment facilities to manage it.
Overall, James would win six Grammy awards and 17 Blues Music Awards. She is considered one of Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and was awarded the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for her instrumental contributions to R&B.
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2001 and has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Best Black Female Singers of the 60s, Conclusion
Black female singers of the 60s brought passion, charisma, and powerful voice talents to the rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, jazz, and pop music genres. They were instrumental in providing the world with some of the best songs of the 20th century and successfully paved the way for modern R&B artists.