20 Greatest Female Vocalists (1-5)

In recent years, I've spent much times reading about music and its history. That's why now I come up with this list of 20 greatest female vocalists in the music recording era. Perhaps some people will argue with me over this list, especially since I made it in the form of charts, but I guess it will open doors of lots of new discussion. I, myself, am not a musician or singer of any sort, but truly I am a music lovers. I have set some criteria in judging who should be put into the list:
  • Vocal ability. A good singer is a singer with a technically good vocal. The greatest singers must be the singers with above average vocal ability.
  • Star quality. You cannot be a greatest singer if you are not a star by yourself. You must have the ability that will make people worship you.
  • Legacy. It's about influence, baby. You are measured by the influence you give to other singers.
  • Fame. Even if you have the greatest vocal of all, it would be useless if nobody knows you. That's why I don't put any Asian or Hispanics in this list [not because of racism since I'm an Asian myself) because none of the them are known enough to be able to be called as the greatest vocalists.
Without further ado, let's start the countdown:

05. Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Nickname: Lady Day
Genre: Jazz
Most Momorable Recording: "God Bless The Child"
Followers: St. Vincent, Chrisette Michele, Eilen Jewell, Cold War Kids, Iza Eirado, Corinne Bailey Rae, Alexa Ray Joel, Linnzi Zaorski, Sophie Milman, White Magic, Regina Spektor, CocoRosie, Nellie McKay, Amy Winehouse, Elan, Agneta Engstrom, Lina, Billie Davis, CéU, Roberta Gambarini, Lori Davidson, Audra Kubat, Joanna Eden, Shirley Witherspoon, Martirio, Trijntje Oosterhuis, Uvee Hayes, Lhasa de Sela, Jody Sandhaus, Pat Cisarano, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Fiona Apple, Madeleine Peyroux, Alice Day, Rosetta Howard, Sheila Landis, Hanna Richardson, Dolores Parker, Carmen McRae, Maria Howell, Bobby Henderson, Julie Christensen, Thelma Carpenter, Abbey Lincoln, Professor and Maryann, Yusef Lateef, Karen Dalton, Anita O'Day, Amina, Patty Waters, Sylvia Syms, Jean Carne, Eileen Farrell, Carrie Smith, Monica Zetterlund, Dinah Washington, Edward Vesala, Roscoe Mitchell, Susannah McCorkle, Karin Krog, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bill Henderson, Fionna Duncan, Urszula Dudziak, Jack DeJohnette, Betty Carter, Ruth Brown, Ran Blake, Mildred Bailey, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Joan Armatrading, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, and many more.
The first popular jazz singer to move audiences with the intense, personal feeling of classic blues, Billie Holiday changed the art of American pop vocals forever. Almost fifty years after her death, it's difficult to believe that prior to her emergence, jazz and pop singers were tied to the Tin Pan Alley tradition and rarely personalized their songs; only blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey actually gave the impression they had lived through what they were singing. Billie Holiday's highly stylized reading of this blues tradition revolutionized traditional pop, ripping the decades-long tradition of song plugging in two by refusing to compromise her artistry for either the song or the band. She made clear her debts to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong (in her autobiography she admitted, "I always wanted Bessie's big sound and Pops' feeling"), but in truth her style was virtually her own, quite a shock in an age of interchangeable crooners and band singers.

With her spirit shining through on every recording, Holiday's technical expertise also excelled in comparison to the great majority of her contemporaries. Often bored by the tired old Tin Pan Alley songs she was forced to record early in her career, Holiday fooled around with the beat and the melody, phrasing behind the beat and often rejuvenating the standard melody with harmonies borrowed from her favorite horn players, Armstrong and Lester Young. (She often said she tried to sing like a horn.) Her notorious private life -- a series of abusive relationships, substance addictions, and periods of depression -- undoubtedly assisted her legendary status, but Holiday's best performances ("Lover Man," "Don't Explain," "Strange Fruit," her own composition "God Bless the Child") remain among the most sensitive and accomplished vocal performances ever recorded. More than technical ability, more than purity of voice, what made Billie Holiday one of the best vocalists of the century -- easily the equal of Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra -- was her relentlessly individualist temperament, a quality that colored every one of her endlessly nuanced performances.
John Bush
04. Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972)
Nickname: The World's Greatest Gospel Singer
Genre: Gospel
Most Memorable Recording: "I Will Move On Up a Little Higher"
Followers: Joseph's Quote, The Steeles, Roberta Gambarini, Geraldine Barksdale, Pat Cisarano, Tracey Harris, Shirley Johnson, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Snakefarm, Clara Ward, Billy Always, Linda Hopkins, Gloria Lynne, Jennifer Holliday, Aretha Franklin, Ernestine Washington, Candi Staton, Dorothy Love Coates, Rev. James Cleveland, and many more.
General critical consensus holds Mahalia Jackson as the greatest gospel singer ever to live; a major crossover success whose popularity extended across racial divides, she was gospel's first superstar, and even decades after her death remains for many listeners a defining symbol of the music's transcendent power. With her singularly expressive contralto, Jackson continues to inspire the generations of vocalists which follow in her wake; among the first spiritual performers to introduce elements of blues into her music, she infused gospel with a sensuality and freedom it had never before experienced, and her artistry rewrote the rules forever.
Jason Ankeny
Mahalia Jackson reigned as a pioneer interpreter of gospel music whose fervent contralto was one of the great voices of this century. Both gospel and rhythm & blues had their roots in the Sanctified church, but whereas blues and R&B departed on secular paths that led to rock and roll, gospel stayed the spiritual course. Nonetheless, the influence of gospel on R&B and rock and roll, especially through such force-of-nature voices as Jackson’s, is inescapable. Little Richard has cited Jackson as an inspiration, calling her “the true queen of spiritual singers.”
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
03. Maria Callas (1923-1977)
Nickname: La Divina
Genre: Opera
Most Memorable Recording: "Norma"
Maria Callas was one of the greatest operatic voices of the 20th century. She revitalized opera and increased its appeal because of her dramatic skill. The extensive range of her singing voice (nearly three octaves) and her ability to emote enabled her to sing many operas that were rarely performed otherwise. Callas biographer Ariana Stassinopoulos said of the singer's dramatic flair, "She brought 'finish' back to the music: each phrase, each word was meticulously weighed … she never allowed it to become meaningless embroidery." And Michael Mark of American Record Guide noted of the American soprano, "Her strange, haunting, beautiful … voice was complemented by an unerring dramatic sense."
She was opera's glory and its bane, an unruly genius who could electrify every follicle in the house and virtually at the same time unravel into self-caricature. In her lifetime she acquired the intercontinental fame generally reserved for wayward royalty. Even thirty years after her death, the name Maria Callas represents for opera what Picasso does for painting and Sarah Bernhardt does for the stage: the epitome of an art. If she suddenly rematerialized in her prime today, even Callas might not live up to the standards she set.
Justin Davidson

Callas, of course, is the great example of the diva phenomenon in modern times. It is not a matter of fond recollection; she is adored, studied, venerated, imitated, sold, demythified, posthumously exploited - and seriously discussed by observers who seek to understand the nature of her contribution. Twenty years after her last appearance on the operatic stage and a decade after her death, every commercial record she ever made remains readily available in the stores; large portions of her output are already being transferred to compact disk, a commercial acknowledgment conferred on no other retired or deceased singer.
Will Crutchfield

It's understandable that Callas's singing still polarizes listeners. Her voice can sound strident, dangerously out of control, even ugly. There is a leap you have to make to get to where she is as an artist; and once you cross over, it's hard to look back. To a listener in the throes of a Callas recording, all other sopranos can seem like pale substitutes. She exploded the concept of what beautiful singing means: Is it pretty sounds and pure tones? Or should beauty evolve from text, musical shape, dramatic intent and, especially, emotional truth?
Anthony Tommasini
02. Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
Nickname: The First Lady of Songs
Genre: Jazz / Pop
Most Memorable Recording: "How High the Moon"
Followers: St. Vincent, Jesse Palter, Erin Boheme, Alexa Ray Joel, Sandy Dennison, KT Tunstall, Linnzi Zaorski, Sophie Milman, Katie Melua, Christina Machado, Soluna, Jaguar Wright, John Larkin, CéU, Jackie Tice, Alex Pangman, Roberta Gambarini, E.J. Decker, Bilal, Stacie Orrico, Jane Monheit, Cibelle, Ithamara Koorax, David Leshare Watson, Karen Shane, Uvee Hayes, Trina Hamlin, Jody Sandhaus, Connie Evingson, Monica Hatch, Judy Barnett, Judy Argo, Alice Day, Joe Lee Wilson, Hanna Richardson, Flora Purim, Maria Howell, Kate McGarry, Sylvia Syms, Eileen Farrell, Jackie Paris, Connee Boswell, Norma Winstone, Dakota Staton, Helen Merrill, Gloria Lynne, Karin Krog, Billy Harper, Fionna Duncan, Urszula Dudziak, Miriam Makeba, Rosemary Clooney, and many more.
"The First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald was arguably the finest female jazz singer of all time (although some may vote for Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday). Blessed with a beautiful voice and a wide range, Fitzgerald could outswing anyone, was a brilliant scat singer, and had near-perfect elocution; one could always understand the words she sang. The one fault was that, since she always sounded so happy to be singing, Fitzgerald did not always dig below the surface of the lyrics she interpreted and she even made a downbeat song such as "Love for Sale" sound joyous. However, when one evaluates her career on a whole, there is simply no one else in her class.
Scott Yanow
* "Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all." - Bing Crosby
* "I call her the High Priestess of Song." - Mel Tormé
* "I didn't realize our songs were so good until Ella sang them." - Ira Gershwin
* "She had a vocal range so wide you needed an elevator to go from the top to the bottom. There's nobody to take her place." - David Brinkley
* "Her artistry brings to mind the words of the maestro, Mr. Toscanini, who said concerning singers, 'Either you're a good musician or you're not.' In terms of musicianship, Ella Fitzgerald was beyond category." - Duke Ellington
* "She was the best there ever was. Amongst all of us who sing, she was the best." - Johnny Mathis
* "She made the mark for all female singers, especially black female singers, in our industry." - Dionne Warwick
* "Her recordings will live forever... she'll sound as modern 200 years from now." - Tony Bennett
* "Play an Ella ballad with a cat in the room, and the animal will invariably go up to the speaker, lie down and purr." - Geoffrey Fidelman (author of the Ella Fitzgerald biography, First Lady of Song)
01. Aretha Franklin (born 1942)
Nickname: The Queen of Soul
Genre: Soul / R&B / Gospel / Pop / Rock / Blues / Jazz / Opera
Most Memorable Recording: "Respect"
Followers: Vanessa Van Spall, Ryan Shaw, Jennifer Hudson, Bianca Ryan, Paris Bennett, Cheri Dennis, Sharrie Williams, Christia Mantzke, Fantasia, Javine, Lizz Wright, Terri Walker, Kelly Clarkson, Soluna, Sharon Brown, Natalie Brown, Juanes, Mary Thornton, Jill Scott, The McClurkin Project, Antsy McClain, Jess Klein, Halley DeVestern, Anna Vissi, Carmen Consoli, Antonella Bucci, Alexia, Eboni Foster, Pat Cisarano, Mónica Naranjo, Juanita Williams, Tweet, Angie Stone, Keith Stegall, Monie Love, Queen Latifah, Shirley Johnson, Jean-Jacques Goldman, Joy Fleming, Terry Ellis, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, The Family, Dee Dee Wilde, Anita Pointer, Billy Always, Marilyn Scott, Sandra Feva, June Pointer, Ace Spectrum, B Angie B, Eileen Farrell, The Pointer Sisters, Bonnie Pointer, Freddie Mercury, Patti LaBelle, Margie Joseph, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Holliday, Culture Club, Rita Coolidge, Natalie Cole, Judy Mowatt, Dennis Brown, Deniece Williams, Candi Staton, Helen Baylor, and many more.
She is known the world over by her first name and as the undisputed, reigning “Queen Of Soul,” Aretha Franklin is peerless. This 2005 recipient of a Presidential Medal Of Freedom honor (the U.S.A.’s highest honor), 20 Grammy Awards (and counting), a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Grammy Living Legend Award. She has received countless international and national awards and accolades. Aretha has achieved global recognition on an unprecedented scale. She has influenced generations of singers from Chaka Khan,Natalie Cole and Mary J. Blige to “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino and Oscar winning Jennifer Hudson. Her ever-distinctive soulful, to-the-bone vocal style has graced the music charts for over four decades and while her ‘live’ performances have touched the hearts of literally millions since she began her musical journey as a gospel-singing child prodigy, it is her rich legacy of recordings that are a testament to the power, majesty and genius of this one-of-a-kind artist of the first order.

Beyond the timeless classic hits such as “Respect,” “A Natural Woman,” “Chain Of Fools,” “Think,” “Daydreaming” and “Freeway Of Love” among the dozens of chart-topping records that have established her as a cultural icon, Aretha Franklin’s catalog of over forty albums informs listeners of her unmatched, unparalleled artistry as an interpreter of song, bar none. Her elevation to ‘royal’ status is indeed not just a function of her hitmaking ability but of her unique inventiveness as a musician who fuses art and soul seamlessly. Indeed, it’s often been said that Aretha could take ‘happy birthday’ and turn it into a veritable opus and while those who know her will testify to her culinary skills in the kitchen, it is her mastery as a musical chef that is evident on each and every one of those forty-plus albums, many of which have achieved gold and platinum status.
David Nathan

Franklin's version of "Respect," coming as it did at a crucial point for black activism, feminism, and sexual liberation, was particularly potent. Wexler noted that Franklin took Redding's more conventional take on the song and "turned it inside out, making it deeper, stronger, loading it with double entendres." What's more, he noted, "The fervor in Aretha's magnificent voice" implied not just everyday respect but "sexual attention of the highest order," as implied by the "sock it to me" backup chorus she and her sisters devised.

Writer Evelyn C. White, in an Essencepiece, referred to "Respect" as a revolutionary force in her own life. Franklin's "impassioned, soulful licks and sly innuendos about sexual pleasure made me feel good about myself," she wrote, "both as a black American and as a young girl about to discover sex." Eventually, the song would become an American pop standard. At the time of its release, however, it served primarily as a fight song for social change, and went on to score two trophies at that year's Grammy Awards.
Simon Glickman and Tom Pendergast
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Anonymous said…
HI there... thx for ur comment u left in my tagboard. May i knw who r u?? hehe..*winks.
U havea great blog too.. hehe.
Johanamay said…
great review bro...
really inspire me :)...

actually,my template is an old one :), but since it hacked by someone and I couldn't fix it until the 'hero' came *hehehe*
Murni Rosa said…
I juga the greatest vocalist... di kamar mandi, tapi. :-p

Any way, great review, Jed!
darren said…
OK, I gotta agree with a lot of your top 20, more than any other top 20 female vocalist list I've seen on the net any way. However, are you seriously saying that Madonna deserves a place in the top 100 let alone top 20, I was dubious about Mariah and even Whitney, although she WAS good, before smack ravaged her. Still my point is that in no way on Earth should Madonna be in there, especially as Nina Simone isn't even mentioned, surprising considering how many other truly, great black female vocalists are in your list. other than that though, great list.
Jed Revolutia said…
After making the list, I feel kinda guilty for not having put Nina Simone in the list. But then I have to realize that these people that I have chosen are the people who are successful in exploring their talents. Madonna perhaps is not having good vocal technique, but her influence on many other female singers are very obvious. We can't just erase her from the music history.
Pat Cisarano said…
Dear Friends,
My name is Pat Cisarano, and I'm a female vocalist/song write from Brooklyn NY.
I happened to come across this site by chance.
I'd like to express my gratitude for the mention my name in a list of female vocalists.
Due to serious medical problems, I have been out of the business for over 10 years, and struggle to find a place for myself again.

It's very exciting to know that my music may have reached so far away from my home. I've read with interest your comments and opinions, and they show a wide understanding and appreciation.
I must agree about Nina Simone-a true artist who lived her art.
I don't have anything against Madonna, although I wouldn't include her in a list o "great" singers. I admire her marketing, acting, and dancing abilities, in her mastery of media manipulation. Simone, on the other hand, cared little for marketing, but the emotion effect she creates is one of a kind a, respect, and keep up the good work!