Is it possible to make a definitive list of the greatest female musicians of all time, or even a short listing of, say, 15 women in music who can inspire youngsters? People debate about such topics for hours, but it’s worthwhile to at least make an attempt at a roster of top women musicians that beginners can look up to.
The “Awesome 15”
Some of the names on the Awesome 15 list are best known as instrumentalists, others as vocalists. In many cases, women known primarily as vocalists are also quite accomplished on one or more instruments. Janis Joplin, for instance, played six instruments at an expert level.
We like to inspire young musicians by showing them lists like this and letting them do a bit of research on their own. That way, they tend to be surprised at what they discover and take away their own sense of inspiration based on perhaps just one or two small facts about the famous person’s life. Here’s a quick look at the main facts about each of these incredible female musicians:
Joni Mitchell: One of the top songwriters and performers of the 1970s, Mitchell is an accomplished guitarist, pianist and lyricist. The Canadian great is still, at the age of 76, churning out hit songs for other artists and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Bonnie Raitt: The legendary blues songwriter, guitarist, singer and social activist, Raitt singlehandedly broke through many barriers for women who came after her. She was one of the first mega-famous female guitarists who worked alone, not as part of a larger band. Now 70 and still actively touring and recording, she is the first woman to have a Fender guitar line named after her.
Joan Jett: JJ, as her friends call her, is an “everything” person when it comes to her artistic talents. She not only writes lyrics, sings, composes musical scores, plays guitar and produces other musicians, she’s also an actress. Jett came to prominence at a young age and has never really stopped producing top-quality songs.
Carole King: Often called the most successful female songwriter of the 20th Century, King has been actively writing songs, composing music and performing on guitar and piano for more than 60 years.
Lita Ford: The heavy-metal queen who got her start as lead singer of the Runaways in the 1970s, Ford successfully crossed over to a solo career, wrote many songs for other musicians and continues to perform
Judith Durham: A musician in her own right but primarily known as a vocalist, Durham no longer performs but led the Seekers as Australia’s top pop group for more than a half-century. Durham has become an advocate for young female musicians and a spokesperson for performers who face mental illness.
Amy Winehouse: Winehouse’s career was cut short by and early death, but her skill as a singer-songwriter-guitarist has already inspired millions of musicians all over the world.
Janis Joplin: One of the most talented of the musical greats to come out of the 1960s, Joplin was a multi-instrumentalist, a unique performer and a top-notch songwriter.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Queen of Jazz, Fitzgerald has perfect tone and is still remembered as perhaps the greatest singer of that genre of music. Her career spanned seven decades and she remains one of the most prominent influences on modern song.
Stevie Nicks: Now in her 70s and still actively performing, Nicks is best known as the primary vocalist and songwriter for 70s super-group Fleetwood Mac. An accomplished guitarist, Nicks often points to a guitar she received as a gift on her sixteenth birthday as the turning point in her musical life.
Pink: One of the most successful musicians of the modern era, Pink is a multiple instrumentalist, songwriter, performer, model, actress, record producer and political activist. Of today’s female musicians, Pink probably has the broadest demographic appeal. She’s admired by people of all ages and all of her live performances are instant sellouts.
Cyndi Lauper: The 1980s rocker was once Madonna’s primary musical rival but went her own way with a career that was based mainly on songwriting and performing. With multiple hits to her credit and a truly unique style of singing, Lauper continues to tour regularly in her 60s.
Norah Jones: One of today’s most respected singer-songwriters, Jones is the daughter of world music legend Ravi Shankar. Her piano pieces and unique singing style have led many young artists to choose a career in the performance industry take piano lessons. The owner of a popular music shop in New York City said, “I sell more pianos when Norah Jones has a hit than at any other time.” To date, Jones has sold in excess of 50 million records.
Etta James: From the 1950s until her death in 2012, James was one of the most influential jazz, blues and soul singers in the world, inspiring musicians from all over the world to begin careers in music, songwriting or performing.
Marian Anderson: One of the most admired singers of all time, Anderson was at her peak of popularity in the late 1930s and early 1940s when she broke racial barriers by singing classical songs for a mixed-race audience at the White House during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Most female vocalists today mention Anderson’s name when asked who their inspiration was.
It’s helpful to let music students read biographies of influential women, many of whom are known for both their songwriting ability and performance excellence on stage. One of the main ways these female leaders of the craft can inspire students is through example. Many now famous performers endured years of struggle and anonymity before they made names for themselves.
Many, in fact, never set out to become household names but studied music for the sake of its artistic merit. Opera singer Marian Anderson is a perfect example of someone who was simply in love with music, singing and performing. Her attitude toward the artisanship of music can be a central point of inspiration for musicians young and old. When children read about her struggles and how she truly suffered to be able to sing, they see the essential power of music and how it can change society for the better.
Who Inspired the Greats?
Parents and teachers can point young musicians in an interesting and educational direction: have students read about women on the above list and find out where each woman found inspiration in her own life. In the majority of instances great musicians are inspired by those who came before them. Ask any influential musician about the concept of inspiration and they’ll likely tell you that they find it in many different places, including from the following sources:
- Other contemporary musicians and artists
- Parents and teachers
- Musicians from earlier eras or centuries
- Social events and accomplishments of non-musicians
It’s a fact that most of today’s female contemporary artists draw upon their predecessors from the 1960s, 1950s and many decades prior. Inspiration is like an unbroken chain connects accomplished artists from one generation to the next. For example, Pink often cites Janis Joplin as her primary musical influence while Joplin usually mentioned Etta James as her musical muse.
There’s something magical about inspiration in that it seems to never die and keeps moving from one person to another. Maybe that’s why youngsters get so much from reading about the names of awesome female musicians of the past and present.