Highlighting History: 10 Legendary achievements by women in music
Much like a game of chess, these queens used their mobility and instinct to blaze a trail of their own.
One of my favorite inspirational memes of all time reads: “What’s a Queen without her King? Well, historically speaking, more powerful.”
While the quote’s validity is entirely dependent on context, such as how Isabella of Castile, for example, was more powerful than her husband Ferdinand, it does speak to the interpretational mantra that a woman’s worth is not defined by a male counterpart. And that is a mentality that many female or non-binary identifying trailblazers can get down with, especially in male-dominated industries such as music.
Throughout the past century and beyond, women have fought tirelessly, courageously and often selflessly to influence culture and the arts in an impactful way, despite maybe never having their stories properly told or their accomplishments acknowledged, let alone celebrated.
Such an uphill-but-necessary battle continues today, as grave statistics remind us that less than 5% of engineers or producers are female or that there haven’t been more than three women in the top 10 most-played artist lists since 2014. One glance at the 2018 Grammy nominations will indicate that, yes, diversity is improving but throw a dart at the list and it’s more than likely going to hit a man’s name.
However, the desire to see women shine and representation change is becoming a more universal notion with each passing day and with every awards cycle. I’d like to think that the music industry is ready to embrace such a shift in power and praise alike, but naturally, that lies in the consumer at large.
While examining trends and predicting where the future of music is heading, it’s undeniable that fans are a primary driving force. Through initiatives such as Spotify’s gender equalizer (which creates a more gender-balanced suggested playlist) and Apple Music highlighting a list of its most-streamed women, the reminder becomes amplified in neon-lit letters: fans have the daily power of choice and there are no shortage of incredible (non-male) artists to choose to actively support.
As the groundwork continues (and to point out the obvious) there are dozens and dozens of women to thank and celebrate when it comes to today’s music landscape. In honor of continuing the dialogue this Women’s History Month, take a look at 10 legendary achievements that have had a profound effect on the history of music—and inspired millions along the way—with women leading the charge.
Note: Artists such as Beyoncé (please forgive me, Beyhive), Lauryn Hill, TLC, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, among countless others, were left off this list in an effort to showcase a broad range of achievements across both the industry and art alike, as well as to honor some of history’s finest who are no longer with us today.
Ethel Waters had an illustrious career both as a professional blues and jazz singer and as a dramatic actress. While growing up in extreme poverty, Waters turned to music to create a life for herself, with her versatile talents leading her to become the second Black woman (after Hattie McDaniel) to be nominated for an Academy Award, as well as the first woman of color to be nominated for an Emmy Award in 1962. Decades prior, in 1939, she became the first African-American to star in her own television show, The Ethel Waters Show, which was broadcasted on NBC.
While many of her accomplishments were for her work on screen, her work on stage as a vaudeville singer helped her pave her own way, later leading her to star on Broadway and perform alongside artists such as Duke Ellington. She has also had three recordings be added to the Grammy Hall of Fame, which was established in 1973 to honor recordings at least twenty-five years old that have had “qualitative or historical significance.” Needless to say, the career and legacy of Ethel Waters is an extraordinary one.
Carole King is best known for her accomplishments as a songwriter, with her pen game garnering her the recognition of being the most successful female songwriter for the latter half of the 20th century. Throughout the years 1955 and 1999, she wrote 118 pop hits that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100.
In the early ’70s, King shifted her focus to recording her own material, releasing her debut solo album Writer in 1970. Her sophomore effort, 1971’s Tapestry, became her breakthrough record, going on to hold the No. 1 spot on Billboard for 15 consecutive weeks. The project, which earned her four Grammy Awards, went on to remain on the charts for nearly six years after its debut and has since sold over 25 million copies to date. In 1987, King was inducted, along with her husband Gerry Goffin, into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three years later. From being awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to being recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, King is an undeniable inspiration to songwriters and artists across the board.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Known as the “Godmother of rock and roll” and the “original soul sister,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe inspired a generation of musicians, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Johnny Cash, to name a few. At the age of four, she emerged as a child prodigy, teaching herself the guitar and going on to perform alongside her mother as part of a traveling evangelical troupe. Her 1944 record “Strange Things Happening Every Day” became the first gospel song to make Billboard‘s Harlem Hit Parade (which eventually evolved into the R&B singles chart), with many critics referring to the song to as the first rock and roll record. From her renowned live performances to her expert guitar playing, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was as revolutionary as she was controversial, with some, unfortunately, denouncing her talents by saying she could “play like a man.”
While most of her recognition has arrived posthumously, such as being commemorated with a stamp by the US Postal Service in 1998 and being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007, this past year saw a massive victory for her estate and legacy when she was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence on December 13, 2017. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s unique guitar playing, which is categorized by the combination of melody-driven urban blues and traditional folk arrangements, undeniably helped pioneer what would later become immortalized as good ol’ rock and roll.
Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” will go down in music history as one of the most memorable, impactful tracks of all time (just ask VH1, Billboard or Rolling Stone). Gloria’s iconic disco smash earned her the first and only Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording. While the decline of the disco’s popularity took a toll on Gaynor’s career, she herself bounced back in ways the genre did not, building a name for herself through releasing over a dozen studio albums, touring the globe and, of course, performing her timeless classic, which was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2016. An icon living.
Ella Fitzgerald, also known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz and Lady Ella, was one of the most impeccable vocalists of all time. She became the first woman to earn a Grammy Award at the inaugural ceremony in 1958 and would later be awarded 14 total Grammys throughout her storied career, including one for Lifetime Achievement in 1967. Another standout from her impressive list of accolades was being honored with America’s highest non-military recognition, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987, which recognized her as a cultural ambassador who fought to break boundaries and overcome racial discrimination.
With archival material from her lengthy career being housed in the Archives Center at the Smithsonian and her personal music arrangements being held at the Library of Congress, Ella’s legacy is rightfully being preserved and honored in a variety of ways. Today, her philanthropic spirit continues to live on in the form of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, which focuses on providing opportunities for the less fortunate in a variety of ways, such as through music education, medical research and providing academic opportunities for children.
To say the least, Aretha Franklin is a force to be reckoned with. After earning the title of “Queen of Soul” in the late 1960s, she began carving a legacy entirely her own, going on to become the most charted female artist on the Billboard Hot 100—a crown that would later be passed to Nicki Minaj in 2017. In addition to becoming the first female artist to have 100 songs on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (with her 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” helping her achieve this impressive career milestone), she also became the first woman to to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In total she has earned 18 Grammy Awards, including her Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and an honorary degree from Harvard in 2014—and not to mention, an actual Asteroid was named in her honor.
From singing at Martin Luther King Jr’s homegoing service in 1968 to performing at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Aretha Franklin’s legacy can best be summed up by the former POTUS, who famously said in 2015, “American history wells up when Aretha sings. Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
While Sylvia Robinson was a recording artist in her own right—and an award-winning one at that—she is best known for her work as founder/CEO of Sugar Hill Records. Her vision as a music executive earned her the title “the Mother of Hip-Hop,” with Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 record “Rapper’s Delight” and 1982’s “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five helping both cement her legacy as a pioneer and introduce hip-hop to a mass audience across the United States.
While a biopic telling the story of how her business sense and savvy as a producer helped foster an entire musical movement has been in the works for the past several years, in the meantime, Taraji P. Henson’s Empire character Cookie Lyon allegedly draws inspiration from Sylvia’s four-decade-long career. Empowering, impassioned and dedicated are just three words of many to describe Sylvia Robinson and her forward-thinking, entrepreneurial spirit.
Of her many achievements, Whitney Houston is known for being one of the best-selling music artists of all time—impressively selling over 200 million records worldwide—and for being the most awarded female act of all time. Her domination on the charts began with her 1985 self-titled debut, which went on to become the best-selling debut album by a woman in history. Numbers aside, Whitney Houston is celebrated for her exceptional talent as a vocalist, for her legendary reign as the “Queen of Pop” in the 80s and 90s and for inspiring several generations of singers, with women such as Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Nelly Furtado, Destiny’s Child, Alicia Keys and countless others all citing her as a key influence.
Outside of music, Whitney made her on-screen debut in 1992’s The Bodyguard, going on to make several other high-profile film appearances. She held roles in 1995’s Waiting to Exhale and 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife, with the soundtrack to the latter film becoming the best-selling gospel album in history.
From becoming the first women of color to receive heavy rotation on MTV for her “How Will I Know” music video to laying the blueprint for what has since been referred to as the pop/soul diva, Whitney Houston is forever immortalized as a music icon.
For women aspiring to hold down high-level executive jobs in the music industry, Sylvia Rhone is an absolute inspiration. In 1994, one standout achievement (of many) helped solidify her legacy, as she became the first Black woman to attain the dual title of chairman and CEO at a major label when she was hired by Warner Music Group chairman Doug Morris to lead the charge at Elektra Entertainment Group.
Throughout her storied career, Sylvia has worked at a variety of reputed companies, including Atlantic Records, Motown Records and Universal Records (which later split into Universal Republic Records and Universal Motown Records, the latter of which she served as president). Currently, Sylvia is the president of Epic Records, as well as is a member of the Board of Directors for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While her next career chapter remains in a state of speculation following Epic CEO L.A. Reid stepping down in 2017 after being accused of sexual harassment, one thing is certain: Sylvia Rhone’s work in the music industry is far from finished.
Angie Martinez is a hip-hop radio pioneer and industry mainstay, just ask some of the ladies featured on our recent list highlighting the achievements of women in media. While earning her stripes as an intern at Hot 97 as a teenager, it soon became apparent that she was destined for a career in urban music/radio, something that DJ Funkmaster Flex recognized early on during their time working together. From teaching her to run the boards to encouraging her to hop on the mic, Angie went on to earn a show of her own, something that later proved to be one of the New York-based station’s wisest decisions.
While balancing a burgeoning career in radio, Angie tried her hand at rapping after appearing on KRS-One’s 1997 track, “Heartbreak.” The guest feature soon led to opportunities to collaborate with the likes of Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Da Brat. Their collaborative remix of “Not Tonight,” which appeared on the Nothing to Lose soundtrack, went on to peak at number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earn Angie a record deal of her own. After releasing two studio albums in the early aughts, Angie announced her retirement as a recording artist, instead choosing to continue fostering her career in radio and work on other projects. In 2014, her decision to resign from Hot 97 to sign on with their main competition Power 105.1 shocked the industry, a surreal moment that vividly opens her New York Times-best selling memoir, My Voice. Currently, in addition to hosting her afternoon show on Power 105.1/iHeartMedia, Angie Martinez works as a consultant for content and culture at TIDAL, hosts a podcast alongside her longtime friend and music journalist Miss Info and, naturally, has plenty of other projects up her sleeve.