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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Billie Holiday was “discovered” singing in Harlem nightclubs when she was just 17. Scottish singer Beth Roars has a marvelous analysis of what makes Holiday’s voice so iconic, and how she developed it. She notes how she started out trying to copy the big sounds of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, but found her voice wasn’t as “big.”

She developed her own unique style, drawing out tones, letting her voice flutter at any point in the lyrics, and diving in on the very imperfections that made her voice unique. Beth Roars notes that whereas other singers of the era attempted to hide the nasality of their voices, Holiday would at times lean into it.

In so doing, she had an enormous influence on many of the greatest singers of the 20th century, including Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and Janis Joplin. Holiday’s life has been portrayed in several major motion pictures. She has been played on screen by Diana Ross and Andra Day. Holiday was hounded by law enforcement and swindled out of her fortune by untrustworthy friends. After a lifetime of alcohol abuse, she died at the age of 44 in 1959, but her voice lives on.



You may have to make a few connections to link the Boswell Sisters and even Billie Holiday to today’s best rock/pop singers. You don’t need to do that with Nina Simone. She was not specifically associated with rock & roll during her career, but she is as close to modern rock as any female vocalist from the 1950s can get.

Part of the problem in creating Simone’s legacy is that she adamantly refused to be pigeonholed. So you end up with a Wikipedia entry identifying Blues as one of her chief genres, while during her lifetime Simone noted on multiple occasions that she was not a Blues singer. She didn’t even like the blues.

She was most known for her political songs. Her version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is equally staggering. But Simone also did exceptional love songs. For fans who love her instantly recognizable powerful contralto, it seems strange to learn she did not begin as a singer. She was a classical pianist, who like Holiday, began singing in nightclubs to make some money. She held a doctorate in Music from Amherst and was a world traveler who would incorporate diverse cultural impulses into her music.

Many of the most successful singers of the second half of the 20th century – names like Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill – have recorded Simone’s songs and spoken about what they learned from her. And it continues today, with Ledisi’s 2021 album Ledisi Sings Nina.