Since the birth of the blues in the late 1800s, numerous women have made their mark in the genre. Originating from the deep south, blues expanded north to cities like Chicago and Harlem. The period between 1920 and 1930 was a golden era for the blues. Female singers, with their raw vocals, gave male musicians a run for their money.
But the blues are just as alive today, with many innovative musicians creating new sounds all the time. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the lives and careers of 15 of the greatest and most famous female blues singers of all time.
1. Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” was one of the highest-paid Black entertainers of her time.
Raised in Tennessee, Smith had a following by the age of 9, and by the age of 16, she was touring. In her mid-20s, she struck out on her own and became one of the most famous blues singers of the 20th century.
Her first hit, “Down Hearted Blues,” sold 780,000 copies in 1923, even though several other musicians had already recorded it.
Smith was a huge influence on a number of other vocalists, such as Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Janis Joplin. A film based on her life called Bessie was released in 2015 and is definitely worth a watch.
2. Koko Taylor
Next, we have “The Queen of the Blues,” Koko Taylor, who was born Cora Ann Walton near Memphis, Tennessee, where her musical journey began by singing the blues as a child with her siblings.
In 1952, Taylor and her husband moved to Chicago, where they frequented blues clubs. Soon she was discovered and given a recording contract.
Taylor later recorded nine albums, eight of which were nominated for Grammys as well as winning 29 Blues Music Awards for Traditional Female Blues Artist of the Year, more than any other artist in history.
In 1997, Taylor was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame, and in 1999, she received their Lifetime Achievement Award.
3. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul,” grew up in Detroit, where she sang in the church choir and eventually landed a contract with Columbia.
Franklin could sing gospel, soul, and the blues equally as well, with many people considering her the greatest singer of all time.
She mixed gospel and R&B styles and took blues to a new level, becoming the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
After a lifetime of hit records and awards, she died at her home in 2018.
4. Ma Rainey
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was an inspirational female blues singer who recorded her first song in 1923—more than 100 recordings followed over the next five years.
Rainey was born in Georgia to minstrel performers and began performing as a teen. She was known for her “moaning” style of deep-throated singing and flashy stage presence.
Rainey bridged the traditions of vaudeville and blues. Her “See See Rider Blues” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.
The 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was turned into a film in 2020.
Related: For more on Ma Rainey, read our list of the best lesbian singers of all time.
5. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Born Rosetta Nubin in Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, aka “The Godmother of Rock n Roll,” came from a family of singers, evangelists, and cotton pickers.
Her journey into the world of music began when she picked up the guitar at the age of four, and by the age of six, she was performing.
Throughout her younger adolescent years, Tharpe began to dabble in New Orleans jazz and gospel with Delta blues, furthering her passion.
Tharpe’s lyrics were a striking reflection of her sexuality, which was seen as provocative at the time. However, her music was still popular, and she joined the Cotton Club Revue in 1938 at age 23. Her first single, “Rock Me,” was a hit when she released it the same year.
Tharpe enjoyed a long, unconventional career. In her later years, she toured throughout Europe, bringing her music to a wider audience.
6. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin was born and raised in Texas. She loved music as a child and sang in her church choir.
After a few false starts in the business, Joplin joined The Big Brother band in 1966, with whom she had a breakout performance of “Ball n Chain” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Joplin’s raw singing style was like nothing anyone had heard.
With her band, she produced the hits “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime.” Joplin embarked on a solo career in 1969 with a historic performance at Woodstock.
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
7. Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt, a powerful yet unassuming blues singer-songwriter and activist, was born in California.
She began playing guitar when she was eight, and her interest in blues and slide guitar began at age 14.
She performed as a folk music artist while attending Harvard in the late 1960s and released her first self-titled album in 1971.
Twenty albums later, she has won 10 Grammy Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Raitt initiated the Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. She sits on numerous boards and continues to tour to this day.
8. Big Mama Thornton
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was born in Alabama in 1926. She left home at 14 to join the Hot Harlem Review. By this time, Thornton was already an experienced singer, drummer, and harmonica player.
She went on to gain a lot of fame as a blues singer-songwriter. She first recorded the songs “Hound Dog” and “Ball n Chain,” which later became huge hits for Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.
Thornton’s popularity began to wane, but she became popular again in the late 1960s. She continued to record new material throughout the 1970s, although she battled alcoholism, which eventually led to her death in 1983.
9. Shemekia Copeland
Next up is blues singer Shemekia Copeland who was born in Harlem, New York. It turns out that blues is in the family as her father is blues artist Johnny Clyde Copeland.
Copeland first performed at the Cotton Club when she was ten, and when she was 18, she released the Grammy-nominated album, Outskirts Of Love.
Copeland’s music blends blues, R&B, and rootsy Americana. Her latest album, Uncivil War, tackles the problems of modern-day society in America.
An accomplished artist who has released nine albums, Copeland has performed with Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, and Mick Jagger, among many others.
She has been dubbed one of the greatest female blues vocalists of our time.
10. Etta James
Next up, we have the legendary Etta James, who was born and raised in California.
At five, she was singing in her church choir, and by her teens, she was singing with bandleader Johnny Otis.
James launched her solo career in 1955 and signed with Chicago’s Chess Records in 1960. Chart-toppers like “All I Could Do Was Cry” and “At Last” followed.
James had a long and prosperous singIng career before her death despite the fact she struggled with heroin addiction.
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. That same year, her album Let’s Roll won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Related: For more like Etta, check out our list of the most famous female singers of the 1960s here.
11. Billie Holiday
One of the true greats, Billie Holiday, also known as “Lady Day,” grew up in Baltimore listening to jazz greats.
She and her mother moved to New York in 1929, where Holiday began singing at Harlem nightclubs. By 18, Holiday had her first contract.
In the late 30s, she fronted the Artie Shaw Orchestra, making her the first black woman to work with a white band. In 1939, she co-wrote and recorded “God Bless the Child,” which was a huge hit.
Holiday’s popularity surged again in the 1950s. Her voice became more rugged and intimate. It was during this time that she recorded “Lady Sings the Blues.”
But, despite her huge success, Holiday struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism and died in 1959.
Related: Next, read our list of the greatest female jazz singers of all time.
12. Rory Block
Seven-time Blues Award winner Aurora “Rory” Block grew up in Manhattan around the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the 1960s.
Everyone in her family was musical, so she grew up around music. Rory mastered the classical recorder by eight and began learning classical guitar at 11.
At 14, she was introduced to the music of Mississippi Delta blues guitarists. Shortly after, she left home to study blues music with old-time greats such as Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis.
A prolific blues musician, Block has recorded 36 albums over her career. A passionate and authentic singer, she has also been called one of the most successful blues guitarists of our day.
13. Beth Hart
Los Angeles native and internationally renowned blues artist Beth Hart sings and plays piano, guitar, cello, bass guitar, and percussion.
She got her start in the L.A. club scene in the early 1990s with her breakout hit “LA Song (Out of This Town)” from her second album, Screamin’ for My Supper.
Hart has recorded 17 albums and performed all around the world, with her vocals being described as gritty, raw, and visceral.
Her influences are Etta James, Otis Redding, and Led Zeppelin, and her latest album is actually a compilation of Led Zeppelin covers, being released in February 2022.
14. Joanne Shaw Taylor
U.K.-born Joanne Shaw Taylor grew up listening to male blues musicians. When looking for female inspiration, she became enthralled with Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin.
She was inspired to play blues guitar by legends like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, and Albert Collins.
A gritty guitarist and vocalist with Janis Joplin-like chops, Shaw Taylor, was discovered at 16 by Eurythmics’ co-founder Dave Stewart. She moved to Detroit a decade ago as her U.S. career began to take shape.
Shaw Taylor has recorded nine albums, her latest being The Blues Album, which is an 11-track collection featuring songs associated with Aretha Franklin, Peter Green, Little Richard, and others.
15. Samantha Fish
And finally, singer Samantha Fish was born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1989. She grew up surrounded by music as her father played guitar, and her mother was an instructor in a church choir.
Fish started out playing the drums but switched to guitar at age 15. Fish was drawn to blues music as a teen, citing Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Petty, and The Rolling Stones as influences. After she turned 18, she began performing in clubs.
She released her first album, Live Bait, in 2009. Her electrifying style is on full display when she performs live, which is what she loves best.
Summing Up Our List Of Great Female Blues Singers
There you have it – our list of the 15 greatest female blues singers to ever grace the stage.
Blues music is often said to reflect hardships, adversity, and emotional anguish – but it can also be uplifting and joyful at the same time.
Whether they sang at the turn of the 20th century or they are contemporary blues powerhouses, blues women have a place in music history that won’t be soon forgotten.
We join you in celebrating their talents.