Five game-changing female vocalists born in the 1940s

Rock didn't become huge until the 1960s but these female vocalists born in the 1940s certainly helped pave the way for greatness.
Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company
Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company / John Byrne Cooke Estate/GettyImages
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Janis Joplin recorded two albums with Big Brother and the Holding Company and then two solo albums before her death in 1970 at age 27. Her final album, Pearl, was released posthumously. Despite that small output, she is firmly entrenched as one of the greatest blues singers in the history of modern music. She traveled from her home in Port Arthur, Texas to Austin and eventually to the Bay Area where she became the biggest female icon in the Summer of Love universe. A few years later, she was gone.

Joplin’s vocal prowess is obvious. The first hit from Big Brother and the Holding Company - “Down on Me” – showcases the power and unique phrasing that made her instantly recognizable. By the time she hits the end, she leaves no doubt that women can scream just like the boy rockers do.

One of the last things she ever recorded, the mostly a cappella “Mercedes Benz” is a one-of-kind vocal with the range, power, and humor that only Janis could convey. Joplin felt so indebted to Bessie Smith’s influence that she purchased a headstone for Smith’s unmarked grave.

She went on to influence countless blues rock shouters, regardless of gender. Bonnie Bramlett channeled her. So did Van Morrison. When Janis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, another huge fan, Melissa Etheridge, pointed out that however great a singer she was, Janis’ biggest impact may have been in the way she showed a generation of fans – again, both women and men – that they were under no obligation to conform to normal standards.

Indeed, she showed that following your own muse, no matter how bizarre it might seem or sound, was a legitimate path toward success in the music business.

Must listens: “PIECE OF MY HEART” and “CRY BABY”


“They say I’m different ‘cause I’m a piece of sugar cane – And when I kick my legs I got rhythm.” That’s Betty Davis, whose impact on jazz and funk was very similar to Janis Joplin’s impact on blues. She was a revolutionary who growled or purred her words over the funkiest of grooves in the 1970s. And just as the world had never really heard a singer like Janis. They had never heard of anyone like Betty Davis.

She began as Betty Mabry, a talented songwriter who hung out with the Chamber Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton. The “Davis” came after she married jazz legend Miles Davis. Most Miles Davis biographies credit Betty with helping him evolve his late ‘60s fusion of jazz with rock, soul, and folk music. The marriage ended after a short run, and Betty then began her solo recording career.

The first track on her 1973 self-titled debut album was “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” She helped introduce unabashed sexuality into rock & roll songs sung by women. Pretty soon, Patti Labelle was singing “Lady Marmalade” and Joan Jett was covering “I Love Rock n’ Roll.” Macy Gray’s rasp and Lil’ Kim’s sexuality are direct descendants of Betty Davis. Erykah Badu has been very open about the debt so many modern singers owe to Betty Davis.

Must listens: “NASTY GIRL” and “DON’T CALL HER NO TRAMP”