Top 10 Female Singers Of All Time

Having worked in various record shops I like making arbitrary lists about things, especially music. Throw in the fact that I’m a bit of a football nerd and I find I can’t help myself whenever people start talking about “The Best Ever …” in either field.

So, due to the fact I no longer work with music and that I’m suffering withdrawal symptoms, I thought I’d make just such a list. Purely for the fun of it. If you don’t like it, feel free to comment as to why. If you do like, feel free to praise me for my selection.

In the interests of background research for this, I had a quick scout about and found some truly appalling suggestions. I’m not even going to “go there, sister” so don’t worry. Instead, I’ll just post my own and to hell with it …

Without further ado, let the games commence !

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10. SUSAN TEDESCHI
Those of you who know me well, will have seen a tattoo on my left forearm: it’s the signature of Ms Tedeschi.

I first clapped eyes (and ears) on her in Memphis, Tenn. at BB King’s nightclub and it was love at first sight (sound).
She combines the raw power of Janice Joplin with the more soulful offerings of Bonnie Raitt while playing raggedy electric guitar at the same time … and when she plays a solo, she kinda has to concentrate, almost with her tongue slightly sticking out … which is actually quite sexy in the flesh.
Here she is performing the raunchy blues classic, Little By Little and the much more subtle Blues On A Holiday.

9. ANNIE LENNOX
An earlier crush, but still a fantastic voice, Annie Lennox is a complex character who’s now more likely to be found trying to save the planet than up on a stage singing “I Only Wanna Be With You”.

Along with Kate Bush, she seemed to win every award going in the 80s and 90s and like her great space-on-the-mantelpiece rival, she’s also a bit bonkers. 
I don’t care about any of that. I just love the purity of her voice … oh, and that massive mouth of hers. Here she is in the alarmingly good video for Love Is A Stranger, in which she is achingly beautiful, and the much later solo outing The Hurting Time.

8. TRACEY THORN
I love Everything But The Girl. It’s a band I grew up with and I always felt like I went on a journey with them, through their early jazz-tinged material, the jangly indie period and then the much later electronic stuff. Ben Watt is a genius (and a great DJ, incidentally) but above everything was the girl: Tracey Thorn and that voice. 
I can’t believe she’s not higher in this list, but such is the competition. Here’s our Trace’ singing Even So from the band’s debut album, Eden, and also featuring on Massive Attack’s Protection, an instant classic on its release way back in 1994.

7. LIZ FRASER
There’s two Liz Frasers in this world and I happen to love both of them. One is the statuesque actress of the Doctor and early Carry On films; the other is the singer from The Cocteau Twins.

Ethereal is the word most used to describe the voice of Liz Fraser. The singer.
Saucy is the word most used to describe anything about the other one.
Wiki has a nice line about our girl: At times barely decipherable, Fraser seemed to veer into glossolalia and mouth music. Allmusic reviewer Ned Raggett writes that “part of her appeal is how she can make hard-to-interpret lyrics so emotionally gripping.”
Here she is singing the early Cocteau classic Ivo and then much later in another Massive Attack collaboration the effortlessly beautiful Teardrop.

6. MARVA WHITNEY
I do have a hopelessly biased view of Ms Whitney, having spent a few amazing hours in her company a couple of years ago. She certainly has a tale to tell of her time working with James Brown when she was widely known as Soul Sister Number One. It doesn’t reflect well on the madman himself, but what else would you expect ? So many of the true artistic geniuses live their lives on the edge … and on edge too, sometimes. Or maybe that’s just the people around them ?
Marva is a lovely lady who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and she’s still touring. See her if you ever get the chance to: even now it’ll be worth it, I promise you. The moment she burst into song with “We’re On The Right Road Now” while sitting in the back of my good friend Johnny G’s car is one of the most hair-raising memories of my life … it was just her way of letting him know it didn’t matter that he’d taken a wrong turn.
Here she is singing what for me is her signature tune, the unbelievably funky (What Do I Have To Do) To Prove My Love To You, along with the slower but much more famous It’s My Thing.
(see if you can spot the sample in this one)

5. DUSTY SPRINGFIELD
If she only recorded Dusty In Memphis and went to work in a chip shop, she’d still be on this list. The blackest white voice of all time, Dusty has more soul in her little toe than a bus-load of girl bands rolling off a cliff … 

I don’t think I need add anymore, other than to introduce her singing Just One Smile (though it really could have been anything from that LP) and the more familiar yet still hauntingly wonderful Spooky (check out that video!)

4. ARETHA FRANKLIN
I know. 
She’s only at number 4. 
What’s that all about ?
Well, we’re at the business end of this list now and the competition is extremely tough.
I love her. Everyone must love her, even if it’s only for her part in The Blues Brothers.
The very definition of soul, Aretha is right up there with Marvin and Stevie as icons of the genre. All the songs from this point are classics, but for Ms Franklin I’ve chosen I Say A Little Prayer and Rock Steady.

3. BILLIE HOLIDAY
Even with the fairly rudimentary recording technology from the 40s and 50s, Billie’s voice shines through to today just as it carried her through a pretty tough life back then. I defy anyone to listen to her and not feel the hairs on the back of the neck stand up … she squeezes more emotion out of a song than pretty much anyone else who ever lived. 

See for yourself with the gorgeous God Bless The Child and the jazz standard Summertime.

2. ETTA JAMES
The pocket rocket who was years ahead of her time, Etta didn’t take any prisoners and was a one-woman regiment fighting the battle of the sexes. Forget “girl power” … just tell her what you want and she’ll go and get it for you!
If you look up the word “sassy” in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Ms James.
I would loved her to have teamed up with James Brown at some point, but then again, I doubt there would be a safe enough venue for that encounter. 
Here she is singing that wedding day first dance classic At Last and the great consummation anthem, I Just Wanna Make Love To You. Just listen to that power, marvel at the control and then know that she’s one of the best and that you’re privileged to have heard her … 

Before revealing who I consider to be the finest female vocalist of all time, I’d just like to take some time out for a few honourable mentions that haven’t been included in this list: Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Anita Baker from the jazz world – a Baker concert I attended over twenty years ago remains my favourite gig of all time, even now.
From the US, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and the amazing Lucinda Williams – with a voice that could strip paint off the walls – all deserve a shout out, along with the timeless Loretta Lynn. From the Motown era, both Martha Reeves and Diana Ross are worthy of mention, while from the present day, or at least the very recent past, Amy Winehouse has to be up there. Her debut album alone is enough to ensure that she’ll always be considered a fine, but ultimately tragic talent. Still, she’s probably propping up the bar with Janis Joplin somewhere either up above or possibly down below … 

There was only ever gonna be one winner in this competition for me.
My parents saw her with the Duke Ellington band at The Gaumont in Southampton and I was brought up on her music. Over forty years later, and I’m still loving it and still spinning it when I DJ … I give you:

1. ELLA FITZGERALD
The honeyed tone, the syrupy texture, the extraordinary range, the total control and the ultimate power combined with a refined delicacy all combine to create the most unique voice I have ever heard in my life … 

I wish I could’ve seen her perform live, but if you really want to experience the majesty of the Queen of Jazz, just watch this clip of Ella swingin’ Mack The Knife in superb quality for the period. For a better illustration of the clarity of that velvety voice, try They Can’t Take That Away From Me on for size. To me, it’s the perfect love song recognising all the little things that endear a person to their lover, acknowledging that none of us are perfect but that at the same time, there’s nothing they’d change. It’s a beautiful sentiment and perfectly executed by Ella. In fact, I would go so far to say that every version of any song she’s sung is the definitive one. If you need another example, you can’t beat Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye

She’s the best.
Whether you agree with the other more eclectic choices I’ve made, you have to admit Ella Fitzgerald can’t be beaten … but do let me know if you really think otherwise, won’t you ?

Besides, who else could rock a Minnie Mouse hair-do like that and get away with it ..?

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6 thoughts on “Top 10 Female Singers Of All Time

  1. Excellent list, albeit a bit jazzy. (I thought you would put Anita Baker at the top!) I may have put Nina Simone on the list somewhere, or for a bit more bluesy muse I would add Linda Hopkins. Eva Cassidy should be in there as well. Somewhere.

    • That’s a thought-provoking reply, Stuie.
      Anita Baker’s career was very short, with really only a couple of good albums and the rest quite patchy. I always thought she’d “graduate” into singing jazz standards and emerge into the mainstream of that genre, but she never did. I think she settled down into family life after marrying in her late 30s instead.
      Linda Hopkins I don’t know much about – Mary Hopkin I remember though !
      As for Eva … I’m torn. We’ll never know how good she could have been. Yes, she had a wonderful voice and I’m glad she was “discovered” in the end, but like Amy W, who knows what would’ve happened with her.
      The other name you mentioned was Nina Simone.
      Hers was a unique talent: she was undoubtedly a gifted pianist and had great stage presence, but the voice I could take or leave, I’m afraid. Also, I saw her live six months or so before she passed away and unfortunately she was drunk, slurring her words and – worst of all – she played the piano like Les Dawson that day … that memory will forever taint her for me, personally.

  2. Not a bad list! I can’t argue a single one of them, although Tracey Thorn is new to me (thank you!) I might even have to give you your number one! Here are some of whom I think ought to be on a best of, somewhere! In alphabetical order by first name: Amália Rodrigues, Chavela Vargas, Grace Slick, Joan Baez, Joan Sutherland, Judy Garland, k.d. lang, Kate Bush, Lisa Gerrard, Rosemary Clooney, Salli Terri.

    And you MUST have seen Annie Lennox rocking Minnie Mouse ears, if not a hairdo?!

  3. What a great list! I think I even have to grant you your number one pick! Tracey Thorn is new to me (thank you). I would have to squeeze these fine voices in there somewhere, or on some “best of” list. Here for your amusement, in alphabetical order, to limit in-fighting: Amália Rodrigues, Chavela Vargas, Grace Slick, Joan Baez, Joan Sutherland, Judy Garland, k.d. lang, Kate Bush, Lisa Gerrard, Rosemary Clooney, Salli Terri.

    And, surely you have seen Annie Lennox rockin’ a Minnie Mouse hat, if not a hair-do!?

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