50 women who broke barriers in the music industry
The music industry is dominated by powerful women, whether that be the record-breaking albums coming from acts like Taylor Swift or glass-ceiling-shattering boardroom executives. Of course, the music industry was not always so welcoming to women recording artists. In the early 20th century, many women were barred from performing in certain venues. Others faced discrimination on the road, radio, and from record label executives and fellow male artists.
American music would not be as fruitful today without the pioneering work of women like Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin. Nina Simone and Marian Anderson used their voices not only to tantalize listeners, but to push for more equality during times when segregation was rampant throughout the country. These empowering voices from the past have resonated across generations to open up the doors for many of today’s top acts, many of whom in turn are pushing new boundaries for future generations of women in the music industry.
To celebrate these pioneers, Stacker used data from primary news sources to compile a list of 50 women who broke barriers in the music industry. Many of these names are well-known; but are you familiar with know about one of the first Indian singers who won over crowds in North America? What about the rock star who opened up doors for hip-hop icons? Or the pop star who became an owner of a professional football team?
All that information and more is in this comprehensive review of some of entertainment’s most powerful figures. This list is not just exclusive for singers, though, as we will clue you in on some of the emerging executives who are making waves in music and beyond. Click through to find out more about who’s responsible for bringing the hits to your Spotify playlists and iTunes libraries.
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Ella Fitzgerald was known as “The First Lady of Song” for good reason. She won 13 Grammys, recorded more than 200 albums, and was a regular on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.” She also fought relentlessly against discrimination as a Black female artist during the Jim Crow era. Fitzgerald was the first Black woman to win a Grammy award.
Billie Holiday became one of the first Black women to work with a white orchestra when she toured with Artie Shaw in the late 1930s. One of the most famous jazz vocalists in history, Holiday’s song "Strange Fruit," an anti-lynching poem written by Abel Meeropol, eventually earned recognition by the National Endowment for the Arts.
While she was unable to sing in some of the country’s most revered halls, Marian Anderson still wowed crowds—and even Eleanor Roosevelt—with her powerful voice. Anderson eventually became the first Black performer to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Anderson also became a regular performer at the White House, singing patriotic songs with gusto despite her own country’s discrimination against her.
Lakshmi Shankar was a popular Indian musician who was celebrated by fans in the West. She paved the way for artists like Krishna Bhatt and was a standout on the soundtrack for the film “Gandhi.” The sister-in-law of sitar player Ravi Shankar, she also became friends with and collaborated with George Harrison.
Nina Simone was known as the “High Priestess of Soul” for her melodic, poignant, and emotional music. Dedicated to her beliefs of justice and empowerment, Simone left the United States in the 1970s and sharply criticized the country from afar because of its racial injustices.
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Aretha Franklin won a record eight consecutive Grammys for best R&B vocal performance from 1967-1974. The “Queen of Soul” was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and sang at historic events in U.S. history like the memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. and the 2009 inauguration for President Barack Obama. Franklin also topped Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
Joan Baez closed the first day of Woodstock in 1969 and almost instantly achieved a new level of fame with her standout performance. A decade earlier, at only 18, she had performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Throughout her career, Baez has been a champion for civil rights and humanitarian causes, and in 2015, Amnesty International awarded her its top honor—the Ambassador of Conscience Award—for her continuing leadership and efforts in this arena.
As the lead singer of The Supremes, Diana Ross shattered music records from 1965 to 1969. The Supremes are revered as one of the top girl groups of all time, with a dozen #1 hits. By 1970, Ross left the group to pursue a solo career. Her first two singles hit #1, and she went on to star in a number of films, including “Lady Sings the Blues,” which garnered her an Oscar nomination; “Mahogany”; and “The Wiz.” Ross was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful female artist of all time, and the book produced a special commemorative Diana Ross edition in 1993.
Tina Turner was the second artist on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the first female and Black artist to be on the cover of the famed magazine. She started her career in the late 1950s, and for nearly 20 years, she performed with her ex-husband Ike. After leaving him and pursuing a career on her own, it was the 1984 release of “Private Dancer” that put her back on track. Turner has been christened the "Queen of Rock" and was a major inspiration to artists like Beyoncé.
In the 1960s, Carole King wrote many hits for some of music’s top acts, setting a precedent for female songwriters. Five decades later, she won the Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song—the first woman to win the award. King’s standout career was later recapped in a smash Broadway play, “Beautiful.”
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