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Best 60s Female Singers: 10 Women Who Changed The World
List & Guides

Best 60s Female Singers: 10 Women Who Changed The World

The best 60s female singers paved the way for future generations during a period of gender restrictions and racial inequality.


The 60s is hailed as a golden age for rock music, with new frontiers being discovered by artists and bands like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin – all male, most of them white. But during a decade also known for its gender restrictions and racial inequality, a swathe of female musicians broke down barriers and paved the way for more women to follow. The best 60s female singers made their mark in pop, soul and rock’n’roll music, leaving legacies every bit as influential as their male counterparts.

Here are our ten best 60s female singers.

10: Brenda Lee

Sitting just behind Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and The Beatles, Brenda Lee was one of the most successful singers of the 60s – yet she is rarely given much recognition.

Beginning her career at a very young age, Lee started making regular television appearances from the age of ten, on Ozark Jubilee, a variety show dedicated to country music. She had a voice much larger than her tiny frame suggested, and was able to produce strong growls and deep vibrato.

Her Georgia accent and gritty voice made her perfect for the burgeoning rockabilly scene of the late 50s, but while she is best known for her 1958 Christmas hit Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Lee could also give heart-wrenching deliveries of more serious songs. In 1960, she gained unprecedented success in the pop charts with I’m Sorry, for which she was backed by the typical “Nashville sound” arrangements of orchestra and intricate background vocals, making her voice synonymous with ballads. It became the first of many certified gold records for the singer.

Lee’s “girl next door” image became famous around the world. As transatlantic flights were becoming more accessible, she was able to visit various countries, including Japan, Australia and continental Europe, enjoying unprecedented levels of global travel. Successfully crossing genres from country to rockabilly and pop music, Lee paved the way for other artists like Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, forever ensuring her place among the best female 60s singers.

Brenda Lee’s remarkable ability to translate lyrics into reality with raw emotion earned her unprecedented success as a young performer in the early 60s.

Must hear: I’m Sorry

9: Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick’s mellow voice and stylish appearance makes her one of the classiest entries in our list of the best 60s female singers.

Like many of her soul contemporaries, Warwick began singing in the church choir. She didn’t excel at the fiery ardour of gospel singing, but rather displayed expert control and awareness of her own voice, earning her a scholarship at The Hartt College Of Music. While studying, Warwick began singing background vocals as well as recording demos, but it was in 1962 that she took the most important step of her career: signing with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s production company. The partnership made her one of the most successful recording artists of the time, in both pop and R&B, with a string of mid-60s hits.

At a time of racial discrimination, Warwick was able to blur the lines of segregation through her soothing performances. In 1968, she received the first of many gold certifications for the single I Say A Little Prayer. In the calamitous climate of the Vietnam War, this song resonated with a generation, especially with the wives and girlfriends of soldiers overseas, reminding them that they were constantly being thought of. An extremely catchy song, it is easy to overlook the intricate time changes that Warwick so gracefully navigates: quickly moving between 4/4 and 2/4, handling a tough 10/4 feel in the verses, and carrying striking moments of 3/4 in the chorus that create the impression of a difficult 11/4 time. The punctuation she creates with her vocals is incredible. In 1969, she earned her first of six Grammy awards, thanks to the hit Do You Know The Way To San Jose?, a song that she jokingly claimed singlehandedly increased the population of San Jose, California.

The quintessential representative of pop elegance, Dionne Warwick successfully captured the essence of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s vision, creating canonical pieces of 20th-century music.

Must hear: I Say A Little Prayer For You

8: Cher

With a lucrative, multi-faceted career spanning about six decades, Cher, like others on this list of the best 60s female singers, could easily fit in a list focusing on subsequent eras.

Growing up in California, the girl born Cherilyn Sarkisian often felt out of place. Her looks favoured her Cherokee heritage, and her skin tone and hair colour were significantly darker than her peers’ blondeness. Hollywood, too, had a disappointing lack of brunette stars, so Audrey Hepburn became Cher’s main idol. She set out to be famous from a young age, and when she met Sonny Bono, then working with producer Phil Spector, she simultaneously found love – and a perfect business opportunity.

Bono originally wanted to market Cher as a solo act, however, due to her stage fright, she encouraged Sonny to be at her side. They proved to be a successful duo, promoting marital bliss with their 1965 hit I Got You Babe, which became one of the most essential songs of the decade. Often falling lower than Sonny’s vocals, her deep contralto voice broke the typical gender roles, while Sonny And Cher’s signature style of bell-bottoms, fur vests and striped trousers helped popularise the iconic hippie look.

Cher’s solo success came in 1966, with the hit single Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), on which she developed her singing style’s haunting resonance. Backed by the blend of Native American sounds that trailed her career, she crafted an exotic character within the song. Cher’s talents, both with Sonny and on her own, landed her a successful television variety show, as well as a prosperous acting career.

Beginning her career in the 60s, Cher was able to build upon her successes to reach multiple generations and audiences. With her trifecta of voice, personality and fashion sense, she established the foundation for a career that has stood the test of time.

Must hear: I Got You Babe

7: “Mama” Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot had one of the most significant voices of the 60s. With an impeccable ability to harmonise in a group setting, she had also, by the end of the decade, proved successful in her solo career.

A few days before her high-school graduation, Cass Elliot dropped out and moved to New York. She was committed to making her dreams of becoming a performer come true. Her parents were wary about her decision, so she promised them that if she did not establish a career for herself within five years, she would go to college. After minor success in the New York and Washington, DC, folk scenes, and, almost five years after making that promise, The Mamas And The Papas released the era-defining California Dreamin’. Singing alongside Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Michelle’s husband, John, Cass’ flawless voice established a strong female presence that Michelle would not have been able to create alone.

While boyishly thin models such as Edie Sedgwick and Twiggy established the “ideal woman” look of the 60s, Cass redefined the concept of beauty standards in popular culture. She embraced her size and celebrated it by wearing bright colours and fun patterns – even posing nude, covered in daisies, for her first solo single, Dream A Little Dream of Me – while her cheerful, flamboyant stage presence gave extra credibility to uplifting songs like Make Your Own Kind of Music. Critics remained focused on Cass’ weight, but she found unprecedented success beyond the public’s fixation, ensuring her place among the best 60s female singers by paving the way for artists who look a little “different” from mass-market expectations.

In a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, Elliot claimed that her vocal range increased by three notes after she was hit on the head by a falling drainpipe. Though this is likely a myth, she did have the ability to sing high and low harmonies with ease. When singing either lead or solo, she displayed her full vocal capacity, her voice featuring a rich darkness that leant itself nicely to slow, amorous ballads like Dream A Little Dream Of Me. Her quintessential song, it found Elliot passing through key changes with ease, coating each word that she sang with love. Her solo career confirmed that she had more to offer beyond being a harmonising force in The Mamas And The Papas.

Cass’ incredibly warm, inviting voice uplifted a generation and continues to inspire us to be ourselves.

Must hear: Dream A Little Dream Of Me

6: Dusty Springfield

An icon of the Swinging 60s, Dusty Springfield donned elegant gowns and a bright-blonde bouffant, which gave her a polished, glamorous look, leaving listeners unprepared for her hoarse, soulful renditions of songs like I Only Want To Be With You and Wishin’ And Hopin’.

One of Britain’s greatest singers, known for her blue-eyed soul, Dusty Springfield more than earned her place among the best 60s female singers, and became a national treasure in UK pop culture. Celebrating inclusivity, she was a pioneer of the R&B sound in the UK, and is even credited with officially introducing Motown to British audiences: as host of The Motown Sound, a special 1965 edition of the pop show Ready Steady Go!, she featured groups like The Supremes, “Little” Stevie Wonder and The Miracles. British acts like The Beatles had already begun to emulate these artists on their albums, but Springfield’s program allowed UK audiences to see Motown groups perform their own songs for the first time. Singing Wishin’ And Hopin’ with Martha And The Vandellas, Dusty demonstrated how her voice was able to blend seamlessly with theirs.

After her success in the UK sound, Springfield moved to the home of soul music: Memphis, Tennessee, in order to record Dusty In Memphis. Though Son Of A Preacher Man was originally written with Aretha Franklin in mind, it became one of Springfield’s most remarkable and best-selling songs. Her voice, dripping with eroticism and know-how, created her own musical narrative within the song.

Dusty Springfield’s individuality made her one of the decade’s most influential songstresses, whose impact can be felt decades later. The 1994 Quentin Tarantino film, Pulp Fiction, brought a new audience to Springfield’s Son Of A Preacher Man a fresh awareness. It sold well over two million copies, earning the singer a new wave of well-deserved recognition and a platinum certification.

Must hear: Son Of A Preacher Man

5: Nina Simone

At the age of 12, Nina Simone (then using her birth name, Eunice Waymon) was due to perform in her first piano recital, when her parents were removed from their seats in the front row to accommodate a white couple. She refused to begin until her parents got their seats back. That act alone set Simone on the path to becoming one of the most influential women in music.

Simone was on track to becoming the “first” black classical pianist in America after attending Julliard in the summer of 1950, when racism abruptly halted her admission into the Curtis Institute Of Music in Philadelphia. To make ends meet she began playing nightclubs, where she needed to sing in order to entertain crowds. Ultimately, this led her to begin recording her songs. However, her style was incredibly diverse: inspired by jazz, gospel, folk and classical music, it is impossible to truly apply one genre label to her.

Simone blended each facet of her interests perfectly. Her talent for classical piano often shone through under the guise of jazz, playing contrapuntal solos suggestive of Bach, if he knew how to swing. In the 60s, Simone provided a direct voice for the civil-rights movement, with a warm and raspy singing style reminiscent of old blues singers. Her approach was different to fellow-artists who coded their songs with metaphor, instead of addressing issues directly: powerful songs like Mississippi Goddam have since been entered into the Library Of Congress. Unique among our list of the best 60s female singers, Simone’s timelessness has led to her being sampled by hip-hop’s torch-bearers, among them Jay-Z, Kanye West and 50 Cent.

Nina Simone’s music represents a rare blend of popular and classical styles, and conjures fresh emotion with each nuance of her melodies. She was a master musician who used brutally honest lyrics to convey the plight of inequality, accompanied by a piano that became an extension of herself.

Must hear: Mississippi Goddamn

4: Ronnie Spector

With a style that was equally erotic and innocent, and a Spanish Harlem accent to coat every word, Ronnie Spector’s voice created a rough-around-the-edges sound that stood out against the best 60s female singers.

Born to an Irish father and an African-American/Cherokee mother, Ronnie Spector’s appearance complimented her distinct vocals. She is best known for her time with The Ronettes, a group of family members from New York who gained worldwide success and went on to inspire the likes of The Beach Boys, Ramones and Amy Winehouse, and who took producer Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” style to the world.

An impenetrable symphonic aesthetic created through layering multiple instruments on top of each other, the Wall Of Sound provided the building blocks for many hits through the 60s and into the 70s. One of the most noteworthy Spector productions was for The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, which features a dense orchestral arrangement with a driving drum beat that is simultaneously Latin and rock’n’roll, bringing a level of sophistication to the song.

Though they sang sugary songs of love and romance, Ronnie Spector and The Ronettes became known as one of the “bad girl” groups. The transgressive nature of their look laid claim to this title: with their beehive hair and thick black eyeliner, along with their coordinated hip-shaking during stage performances, they created an edgier form of femininity.

Celebrating the sheer power of femininity, Ronnie Spector created a new, seductive sound for women.

Must hear: Be My Baby

3: Janis Joplin

At a time when there weren’t many women performing the heavier style of psych-rock and blues, Janis Joplin took control of the audience with her electrifying stage performance, fearlessly courting controversy and having a great time doing it.

Janis Joplin never truly felt like she “‘fit in” when she was a young girl in Port Arthur, Texas. Voted “the ugliest man” at the University Of Texas, she overcame awful bullying through her means of escape: music. Listening to greats singers like Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday and Otis Redding, she learned how to pour her emotions into music. Moving out west to California, meanwhile, allowed her to recreate herself. Making a caricature out of her light-heartedness and much-reported wild side, Joplin accessorised her look with feathered boas in her hair, round sunglasses, a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey and a mischievous grin.

Belting out demanding tunes using her distinctive raspy voice, Joplin channelled her pain into her songs and earned her greatest accolades as a live performer. While her voice encapsulated an old blues sound, her band, Big Brother And The Holding Company, was comprised of psychedelic rockers who intrinsically fused the two styles, creating a fresh, attention-grabbing sound. Joplin demonstrated the full effect of this new sound by covering old George Gershwin standards like Summertime’ seamlessly blending typical 60s instrumentation with her raw mezzo-soprano croon. In 1971, the intimate Me And Bobby McGee posthumously earned Joplin her first ever No.1 single, staying at the top for two weeks.

Joplin distilled her life and career into her songs: every time we listen to her, we are reminded to seize the day, just as Janis would want. Her beautiful, painfully raw vocals gave her a unique sense of authenticity among the best 60s female singers, allowing her to embrace the ideals of the feminist movement while marking her powerful presence in the male-dominated music scene of the 60s.

Must hear: Summertime

2: Diana Ross

Diana Ross’ unique voice, along with her keen sense of style, propelled her into stardom with The Supremes.

Barry Gordy’s Motown Records, based in Detroit, Michigan, ran like the standardised assembly lines of the Ford Motor Company that also called Detroit home. With a unique formula for creating hits, Gordy’s label produced top acts that offered the complete package – style, etiquette and elocution – at the forefront of whom were Diana Ross And The Supremes.

Officially forming in 1961, it took the group three years to get a No.1 single. After Where Did Our Love Go topped the charts in 1964, The Supremes scored four more consecutive No.1s, making them the first group to have five consecutive chart-topping hits. Diana’s poised persona mirrored her unique voice, which combined vulnerability and charm, making her completely different to the powerful gospel voices of Martha Reeves or Gladys Knight.

As a young girl in a preparatory magnet school in Detroit, Michigan, Ross aspired to become a fashion designer, taking classes in pattern-making and clothing design. This remained a life-long interest that shone through in the co-ordinated outfits that Ross envisioned for The Supremes. Their glamorous appearance, along with those catchy songs, disarmed white audiences during the civil-rights era, enabling The Supremes to become one of the first all-black acts to perform in white clubs, such as Copacabana in New York.

The all-woman, American rivals to The Beatles, The Supremes reached worldwide fame with the soft, classically feminine vocals of Diana Ross at the forefront.

Must hear: Where Did Our Love Go

1: Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, The Queen Of Soul, had a sincere and powerful voice, with the unique ability to uncover feelings listeners never knew they had.

As a young girl, Franklin grew up in the church choir, learning the trade secrets of gospel performance in both singing and playing the piano while her dad was preaching. She soon caught the attention of her family and peers as a natural prodigy, leading her to begin her professional career as a gospel singer.

Quickly making a name for herself, Franklin saw the potential to branch out. Steeped in this soulful tradition, she embarked on a career in music, in 1960, at the age of 18, with Columbia Records. Commercially, however, she wasn’t able to reach her fullest potential; the label put her with producers whose song choices didn’t allow her to fully express her talents. When Franklin signed with Atlantic, in 1966, she finally achieved great commercial success, especially with her debut album for the label, 1967’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, which opened with her highly acclaimed rendition of Otis Redding’s Respect. Claiming the song for her own, Franklin’s version has become a cultural treasure, adopted as an anthem for both the civil-rights and feminist movements, and solidifying Aretha Franklin’s place among the best 60s female singers.

With her performances (and three-octave vocal range), Franklin had the ability to keep audiences in a state of anticipation, lifting them up with her joyous sound – similar to the effect her father had on his congregation. Her immeasurable talent went beyond singing, however: Franklin had an acute understanding of the piano which allowed her to be deeply involved with the recording process. This was very different to other women in the music business at the time. Many had a great vocal capacity, but few had the level of understanding and expertise that Aretha Franklin had of her musical creations.

Incorporating the improvisational qualities and spiritual fervour of gospel music into secular song, Franklin tugged at each listener’s heartstrings, creating a cathartic experience with each performance.

Must hear: I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)

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