14 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Alto Singers Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

From the earliest days of music history, alto singers have graced our ears with easy-listening tunes and sing-along quality music. Nestled between the tenor and the soprano vocal ranges, the alto voice type sits in the middle of the road.

Alto singers are primarily female, although they come from all styles of music and backgrounds. They continue to be some of the best vocalists in the industry today.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the lives and careers of 15 of the best and most famous alto singers of all time.

1. Gladys Knight

Known popularly as the “Empress Of Soul,” Gladys Knight wasn’t always the powerful R&B singer that we all know and love. There was a time when young Knight was simply a kid, singing in the church choir and competing on amateur television programs.

Knight quickly honed her talent and developed her alto singing voice. By 1955, she had helped form a singing group called The Pips, and they toured all around Atlanta, winning talent shows and making waves.

Gladys Knight and The Pips became known for their release of “Every Beat Of My Heart,” which would reach #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.

By 1966, Knight and her singing group had signed on with Motown Records and quickly became one of the leading groups under that label. 

2. Cher

Born Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, California, Cher first got her start as part of the famous Sonny & Cher duo with her husband, Sonny Bono. They sold 40 million records together before splitting up the group and their marriage. 

Cher became famous for her contralto singing voice in more than just music. Working in television, her style was quickly adored and hailed as a standard. 

Known as the “Goddess Of Pop,” Cher’s reputation only grew as she released chart-topping singles like “Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves” and “Dark Lady.” 

She even took a chance on Broadway and in Hollywood and earned critical acclaim for her acting chops.

Related: Next, check out our list of the best female singers of all time.

3. Ella Fitzgerald

If there was a “First Lady Of Song,” it most certainly would have been Ella Fitzgerald. Her other nicknames included the “Queen Of Jazz” and “Lady Ella,” and they all fit her perfectly. 

Fitzgerald got her start singing with the Chick Webb Orchestra, particularly in Harlem. She became the head of the band when Webb died but eventually left it all for a solo career.

Her success as a solo artist was largely due to her beautiful, powerful, unique alto voice. Songs like “Dream A Little Dream of Me” and “Into Each Life, Some Rain Must Fall” came to life with her voice backing them up.

4. Patsy Cline

Widely regarded as one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century, Patsy Cline was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, Virginia. Though her career was cut short, she made hit after hit and landed on the country music charts repeatedly.

Cline started singing on a local radio station when she was a teenager. Then she started singing with a local band, and soon after that, she appeared on television network shows. 

She was best known for her bold contralto voice, being able to “show” emotion with her vocals alone.

Her first hit single came when she performed “Walkin’ After Midnight.” That was followed up with subsequent hits, including “She’s Got You,” “I Fall To Pieces,” and “Crazy.” 

5. Bonnie Raitt

A woman of many different talents, Bonnie Raitt can play guitar, write songs, produce music, and play a role in political activism. 

Raitt dabbled in various genres, incorporating country, blues, and rock elements in her sound. Her album Nick Of Time became a significant hit in 1989, and she went on to release a string of successes after that. 

Raitt is more than just a good singer. Known for singles like “Something To Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Raitt is widely considered one of the greatest alto singers.

6. Adele

Born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins in London, England, Adele got her start in 2008 with her debut album 19. The album was an instant success with memorable songs like “Chasing Pavements,” and her career launched from there.

Adele is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. Each album produces new hits, and her unique alto range allows her to make music that resonates with people of all ages. 

Her Billboard record proves that her place in music history is well-secured. With hits like “Rolling In The Deep,” “Skyfall,” and “Hello,” Adele continues to produce music that touches hearts and gets people thinking.

7. Liza Minnelli

As far as alto powerhouses go, Liza Minnelli is one of these precious few that is undeniably gifted. Born Liza May Minnelli in Los Angeles, Minnelli is the daughter of superstar Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli.

Minnelli got her start singing in nightclubs and as a musical theater performer. An award-winning actress, Minnelli’s acting and singing careers were equally successful over the years.

Minnelli famously released renditions of American standards, for which she gained critical acclaim for her excellent interpretation of American classics. 

8. Norah Jones

Born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar in Manhattan, Norah Jones is considered one of the top-selling jazz artists of the early 2000s. Her soft alto voice makes her a favorite in low-key settings and coffee houses.

Jones started singing in church with her mother after they moved to Texas. She took music lessons and had a natural gift for it. She always knew that music was her path, and she pursued it with vigor and dedication.

Jones is known for multiple albums reaching platinum status, selling over one million copies. Her singles like “Come Away With Me” and “Don’t Know Why” made her an instant hit.

9. Toni Braxton

Toni Michele Braxton was born in Severn, Maryland. Known for her powerful alto voice and skill as a songwriter, actress, and pianist, Braxton is an award-winning, multi-talented entertainment powerhouse.

She got her start in music performing with The Braxtons, signed with Arista Records. In 1993, Braxton went solo and released her first studio album. It hit #1 in multiple categories and launched Braxton’s career.

With popular singles like “Another Sad Love Song” and “Breathe Again,” Braxton won international recognition and multiple Grammy Awards.

Her success continued for decades, including various collaborations with other artists and the release of Spell My Name in 2020. 

10. Annie Lennox

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, Annie Lennox is a renowned pianist, singer-songwriter, and philanthropist. Her career launched after successfully touring with the Tourists and the Eurythmics bands. 

With the Eurythmics, Lennox received critical acclaim for the songs “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” “There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart),” and “Here Comes The Rain Again.”

Lennox eventually went solo in the early 1990s, and she continued to receive critical success for her solo albums. The successful singles from her first album launched her into a new world of solo performances of songs like “Why” and “Walking On Broken Glass.”

11. Mariah Carey

Born in Huntington, New York, Mariah Carey‘s parents were a retired opera singer and an engineer. She spent her childhood practicing opera, learning how to sing as an alto with an extensive range. 

Known for her five-octave vocal range, Carey’s first five singles reached the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. No other artist had achieved this level of success before Carey emerged on the scene.

With hits like “Vision Of Love,” “Emotion,” and “Always Be My Baby,” Carey quickly rose through the ranks of female alto singers and became one of the most beloved voices of the 20th century. 

12. Etta James

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, Etta James is one of the best-known vocalists in American history. Her songs are easily recognizable, and her rich alto voice earned her multiple Grammy and Blues Music Awards.

James grew up bouncing around foster homes, didn’t know who her father was, and hardly saw her mother. She started singing when she was five, working with a physically abusive music director.

However, James overcame all the obstacles in her way and became one of the most influential singers of her day.

With hit songs like “The Wallflower” and “At Last,” very few people could do what James managed to do throughout her career. 

13. Tracy Chapman

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tracy Chapman loved music from a young age. She learned how to play ukulele and guitar, and she started writing her songs before she turned ten. Her unique alto voice developed with her musical talent. 

After a debut performance in 1985, Chapman was discovered and picked up by Elektra Records. She had great success with Elektra, with her song “Fast Car” earning a ranking on Rolling Stone in the top 500 greatest songs of all time. 

Chapman is now a multiple platinum-holding artist with a string of successful albums and singles, making her one of the best-known artists of her day. 

Beyond her music, Chapman is also known worldwide for her activism, philanthropy, and charity work. She works with organizations like Amnesty International and Make Poverty History, from performing concerts to getting financially involved.

Related: For more like Tracy Chapman, check out our post on well known lesbian singers here.

14. Tina Turner

Born Anna Mae Bullock in Brownsville, Tennessee, Tina Turner is a world-renowned alto singer popularly nicknamed the “Queen Of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

After gaining recognition as the lead singer for Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Turner went on to have her successful solo career.

Her hit song “What’s Love Got To Do With It” earned her a Grammy Award and a #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. She continued to release successful singles, becoming one of the best-selling artists of all time.

Turner retired in 2009, but her relevance in the music industry remains steady.

Wrapping Our List of Well-Known Alto Singers

The ladies on our list are some of the most distinctive names in music history. From Etta James to Adele, their influence spans decades. Regardless of the genre, their smooth alto sounds continue to grace our ears and hearts.

How about you, do you have a favorite alto singer we weren’t able to include? Let us know!

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.