Updated: May 10
The 1960s was the golden age of rock music with new frontiers being created by the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix. It was still a time where the music industry, like other areas of life, was dominated by males, mostly white. Despite a time of discrimination in race and gender, a group of female musicians broke the barriers and paved the way for more women to follow in their footsteps. We list 10 of the top female singers in the 1960s who left a blazing trail and made their mark in pop, leaving legacies as influential as their male counterparts.
10. Joni Mitchell
One of the most prolific females of the 1960s, Joni Mitchell, a singer-songwriter hailing from Canada wrote songs about social and philosophical ideals and reflecting on life as a woman by drawing influences from folk, pop, rock, classical, and jazz. Her first album “Joni Mitchell”, released in 1968 set her on the path to becoming the leading folk performer of the 1960s to 1970s. You can learn to sing and play like Joni Mitchell by signing up for Sing and Play lessons.
9. Brenda Lee
Brenda Lee was one of the most successful singers of the 60s behind The Beatles, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley. But yet she is seldom recognised for her talents. Lee began her career at a very young age and had a much larger voice than her small frame suggested. She gained unprecedented success in the 1960s with her song “I’m Sorry” where she was supported by the typical “Nashville sound” of orchestra and intricate background vocals. It was the first of many certified gold records for the singer.
8. Dusty Springfield
She was described as “The Queen of Blue-Eyed Soul”. Dusty Springfield had a career spanning five decades and her versatility and range extended from blues to pop and even show tunes with her mezzo-soprano voice. Her solo career began in 1963 with an upbeat pop record “I Only Want to Be with You” which hit no. 4 on the UK charts. She continued making hits in the 1960s and throughout her career prompting Elton John to call her the greatest white singer there ever has been.
Cher, known as Cherilyn Sarkisan, set out to be famous from a young age despite feeling out of place with her Cherokee inherited looks and dark hair colour compared to her peers’ blondness. Cher found the perfect balance in life and career when she met Sonny Bono and producer Phil Spector.
Bono had originally wanted to market Cher as a solo act but due to her stage fright, they performed together becoming a successful duo. Cher’s solo success came in 1966 with the hit “Bang Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down” in which she developed her singing style. She has since built on her successes to reach multiple generations and audiences.
6. Mama Cass Elliot
Cass Elliot has one of the most memorable voices of the 1960s and she became famous with the group The Mamas and The Papas. The group released their career-defining “California Dreamin” in 1965. Cass redefined the concept of beauty standards during her time. She embraced her size in a time where the concept of beauty is represented by boyish thin figures. Elliot celebrated her size by wearing bright colours and fun patterns, and even posing nude covered in daisies in her first solo singer, “Dream A Little Dream of Me”.
5. Etta James
At the young age of five, Etta James was known as the gospel prodigy in her Los Angeles community. She gained fame singing in her church choir and on the radio. Her career began to soar by the 1960s due to songs such as “I’d Rather Go Blind”, and “At Last”, which is now one of the most popular songs played at weddings. She won a Grammy in 1973 for her eponymous album despite suffering from drug addiction. James worked until her death, releasing her last album in 2011 right before her death.
4. Nina Simone
Nina Simone was on track to becoming the “first” black classical pianist in the US after attending Julliard in the summer of 1950. But racism prevented her admission into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She began to play at music clubs to make ends meet and led her to record her songs. She was incredibly diverse - her music was inspired by jazz, gospel, folk, and classical music. In the 60s, Simone lent her voice in support of the civil-rights movement reminiscent of old blues singers. Her timelessness has led her to being sampled by hip-hop greats such as Jay-Z and Kanye West.
3. Ronnie Spector
Ronnie Spector is most well-known for being a part of the female group The Ronettes. The group is made up of family members from New York who gained international success and inspired the likes of The Beach Boys, Ramones, and Amy Winehouse. Spector and The Ronettes earned the title of “bad girl” groups due to their beehive hair, thick black eyeliner, and their coordinated hip-shaking during stage performances. The group took producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” style to the world. Their hit “Be My Baby” was created by layering multiple instruments on top of each other.
2. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin overcame bullying in school for her looks through music. Influenced by great singers such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, and Otis Redding, Joplin learned to pour her emotions into music. Joplin channeled her pain into her songs and earned her accolades as a live performer. Her voice encapsulated an old blues sound while her band, Big Brother and The Holding Company was comprised of psychedelic rockers who fused the two styles.
1. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin grew up in the church choir and learnt the secrets to gospel performance in both singing and playing the piano. She soon caught the attention of her family as a prodigy and began her career as a gospel singer. Franklin saw the opportunity to branch out and in 1966, found success when she signed with Atlantic Records with the 1967 “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You”. Franklin’s version of the song has become a cultural treasure and adopted as an anthem for both the civil-rights and feminist movements solidifying her status as the best female singer from the 1960s.