Five groundbreaking female vocalists born before 1940

Modern music is not the same without these five amazing female vocalists born before World War II began.
Portrait Of Billie Holiday
Portrait Of Billie Holiday / Heritage Images/GettyImages
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I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of those “greatest singers in rock history” lists. Probably more than you care to admit. I know I have. This isn’t exactly one of those, though I admit there will be some overlap. It’s inspired by a fundamental disconnect that we are transitioning through today.

To put it in perspective, about fifteen years ago, Rolling Stone published a reader’s poll ranking the ten best singers in rock history. It had most of the usual suspects – Plant, Mercury, Jagger. It was obviously informed by the Rolling Stone reader, which may account for the inclusion of Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, and Eddie Vedder.  Not surprisingly, all ten selections were men.

I recently checked out a few newer, longer lists to see if the boys still dominated things. Upenda Singh Sisoda of Siachon Studios published a top 30 a couple of years ago. Three women made it – Debbie Harry, Stevie Nicks, and Janis Joplin.

Five female vocalists born before 1940 that changed modern music

About six months ago, Melophone’s Phil Devereaux ranked 100 singers. Women were somewhat better represented, with seventeen selections, though seven of them were backloaded into the final twenty spots.

The fact that there are far fewer women than men on these lists isn’t exactly earth-shattering. Rock music has been dominated by men – on both the business and artistic sides of the business from the very beginning. But the disconnect I find comes from the fact that pop music – not rock, mind you – but pop music has been overwhelmingly dominated by female voices for more than a decade now.

Now pop music is not rock music. It is a broader, more inclusive category. Then again, rock music is no longer rock music – at least not the way it used to be. Just read any one of a thousand think pieces bemoaning the recent inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. On Devereaux’s list, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon make appearances. If that’s the case, shouldn’t Adele or Pink get recognition as well? Neither does.

Rock music has become an amorphous term that can include a wide range of songs. I have no problem if you want to remain a purist and restrict your own lists to traditional rock & rollers. But I think women continue to get shortchanged even on those “pure” lists.

But don’t worry. As I said, I am not writing a “best” list today. Instead, I’m beginning the first of a three-part series highlighting the contributions that female singers have made to the development of modern-day rock and pop music. We’re beginning with five singers (seven, actually – more on that soon) who were born long before rock & roll was even a thing. Some had careers that began before World War. Some had careers that extended well into the rock era.

We’ll look at two other more recent groups of influential singers another day. Today, we’re recognizing iconic female voices all born before 1940.


Martha, Connie and Vet Boswell were born between 1905 and 1911 and were already established performers in New Orleans when Vet was just entering her teens. Complicating their travels was the fact that middle sister Connie contracted polio when she was four and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. That didn’t stop them from becoming one of the most popular musical acts of the Depression era.

All three sisters were accomplished musicians. They began studying classical music but soon branched out in all directions, learning to embrace folk, jazz, and blues. When you hear their revolutionary harmonies, you are hearing true innovators. They eschewed traditional singing roles and would invent new, more intimate ways of singing. They sang in colloquial voices, never sounding formal. It was enormously influential on their better-known successors, the Andrews Sisters.

But they also influenced many of the most important vocalists of the mid-20th century. Ella Fitzgerald credited Connie Boswell as a major influence. Bing Crosby performed with the sisters and embraced their creatively casual phrasing. This is modern vocalizing being invented before your eyes a century ago.

There were several steps from the Boswell Sisters to modern rock/pop singing, but it isn’t all that far. And in 1934, they actually sang a song called “Rock and Roll” for the movie Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round. Not much of a movie, and not even a particularly good song. But they were literally singing rock and roll decades before anyone else.