15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Female Singers Of The 1950s

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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The 1950s—the decade fueled rock ‘n’ roll into the mainstream and created the concept of teenagers! The foundation of pop music was also laid in the ‘50s and would be built on in the years to come.

For young people, the 1950s were a cultural revolution: Female singers started emerging more and more, becoming trailblazers and forever icons in the music industry. They were called “girl singers” at the time, and they sang in all genres, including rock, jazz, pop, country, and R&B.

Let’s take a look back at 15 of the greatest and most famous female singers in the 1950s in this post!

Related: Our post on the most popular female singers here.

1. Patti Page

Born as Clara Ann Fowler in Oklahoma in 1927, Patti Page was known as the top-charting and best-selling female singer in the ’50s, selling at least 100 million records in her long career.

She soon started using the stage name Patti Page as a nod to her debut performance when she was 18. Since then, Page’s career bloomed, and in 1948, she signed her first recording contract with Mercury Records.

Her first single that went platinum was “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming” in 1950. She is most known for her song “The Tennessee Waltz” in 1951, which was #1 on the Billboard charts for 30 weeks in 1951.

She also went on several television shows and performed at concerts for more than 60 years. She continued to be active in the music industry until her retirement in September 2012.

She passed away a few months after on New Year’s Day in 2013 at the ripe age of 85.

2. Jo Stafford

American traditional pop singer Jo Stafford was considered among the most popular female artists in the post-war period and was well-known for the purity of her voice.

Before pursuing her professional career as a popular music singer, she was a backup vocalist in the film industry, together with her sisters.

By 1938, Stafford became part of a band called “The Pied Pipers.” Four years later, she pursued a solo career and signed with Columbia Records and Capitol Records.

She also did parody albums to classical songs with her musician husband Paul Weston, singing as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards.

In the mid-60s, however, Stafford decided to go on semi-retirement to focus on family life. She continued to have a music career until well into the ’90s.

She lived a long life and passed away in July 2008—a decade short of reaching her centennial year.

3. Kay Starr

Catherine Laverne Starks was born in Oklahoma in 1922 . She was known professionally as Kay Starr, and was one of the most successful pop and jazz singers in the late 1940s and 1950s.

She debuted her singing career at the tender age of 7 on a Dallas radio station. At age 15, Starr was offered to sing with the prestigious Joe Venturi orchestra, and since then, her success in the music industry continued.

In 1939, she worked alongside huge names such as Glenn Miller and Bob Crosby. Although their collaboration wasn’t a success, this led her to more opportunities to advance her career, including singing with Wingy Manone’s band and Charlie Barnet’s ensemble.

In 1946, Starr began her solo career, and a year later, she signed a contract with Captiol Records. Two of her singles reached #1 on the Billboard charts: “Wheel of Fortune” in 1952 and “The Rock-and-Roll Waltz” in 1956.

Starr went on to have a long seven-decade career until her death in 2016.

4. Doris Day

Popularly known as her stage name Doris Day, the American singer and actress was born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff in Ohio in 1922.

Day landed her first professional singing job on the radio program “Carlin’s Carnival” in 1937. This earned her the attention of American jazz musician Barney Rapp.

It was Rapp’s suggestion for her to use the last name “Day” for her stage name, inspired by Doris Day’s admirable rendition of the song “Day After Day.”

Day proceeded to have a colorful career, and her first recording with Les Brown, “Sentimental Journey,” became one of the biggest hits during the First World War in 1945.

Two years later, Day left Les Brown to begin her solo career. From 1947 to 1967, Day recorded over 650 songs with Columbia Records, including her hit songs, “Love Somebody,” “It’s Magic,” and “My Darling My Darling.”

During her days as a solo vocalist, she starred in several films and became known as a musical-comedy actress. She also had her own radio program “The Doris Day Show.”

She eventually retired in 2012 after a long seven-decade career, and in 2019, Doris Day died at 97 years old.

5. Rosemary Clooney

Another iconic singer back in the day was Rosemary Clooney. Born in Kentucky in 1928, Clooney began singing on radio stations during her teenage years to earn money to support herself and her family.

In 1945, Rosemary and her sister Beth sang regularly for WLW, a radio station in Cincinnatis. Clooney and her sister performed as a duo for the most part of her early career.

In 1947, she signed with Columbia Records and recorded her debut song “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Say Sorry.” However, it wasn’t until 1951 that Clooney rose to fame with her hit song “Come On-A My House.”

After that, Clooney quickly became a household name and became known as simply “Rosie.” Her popularity was even multiplied after she co-starred with Bing Crosby in the 1950s movie “White Christmas.”

Her music career, along with her acting career, swelled as the years went by, and in 1956, she starred in her own TV series, “The Rosemary Clooney Show.”

Clooney eventually succumbed to lung cancer in June 2002 at the age of 74.

6. Peggy Lee

Norma Dolores Egstrom was born in North Dakota in 1920. She was known professionally as Peggy Lee and was one of the most captivating singers in the ’50s.

When her family moved to Wimbledon, Lee became part of a music group led by Lyle “Doc” Haines. Her stint with Haines’s group became the starting point of her music career.

In 1936, when Lee was only 16, she began working as a singer for KOVC, a radio station in Valley City. A year later, Lee adopted the stage name Peggy Lee when she auditioned for WDAY, the most popular radio station in North Dakota at that time.

Years later in 1941, she joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra as a singer and made her first recording “Elmer’s Tune.” A year later, Lee had her first hit song “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place.”

She rose to fame in 1943 with her song “Why Don’t You Do Right?” That song alone sold more than one million copies worldwide, and since then, her career was propelled forward.

Lee also wrote and co-wrote at least 270 songs, including some of the songs for Disney’s animated movie “Lady and the Tramp.”

She had a long career six-decade career as a singer, songwriter, and actress. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 81.

7. Dinah Shore

Born Frances “Fanny” Rose Shore in Tennessee in 1916, Dinah Shore debuted her career as a singer on the WSM (AM) radio station after her college graduation in 1938.

She moved to New York City soon after to pursue a career in signing, and she auditioned for several radio stations and orchestras. In most of her auditions, Shore sang the song “Dinah.”

One of the DJs who auditioned Shore couldn’t remember her name and only referred to her as “Dinah girl,” and soon, the name stuck and eventually became her stage name.

After several auditions, Shore became a vocalist at the WNEW radio station, where she sang with Frank Sinatra. Her talents were eventually noticed by well-known American performer Eddie Cantor.

Through Cantor’s help and encouragement, Shore recorded her first song “Yes, My Darling Daughter” with Bluebird Records. This became her first hit song, selling over half a million copies in just a few weeks.

Shore’s fame soon rose, and she had her own radio show “Call for Music.” Some of her other hit songs include “Blues in the Night,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and “Buttons and Bows.”

She continued to be active in the entertainment industry until her death in 1994.

8. Della Reese

Delloreese Patricia Early, popularly known as Della Reese, was born in 1931 in Michigan.

In 1944, at age 13, Reese had her big break and was chosen to sing with Mahalia Jackson’s singing group. She toured with Jackson throughout her early years, and soon, Reese formed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers, when she was 18.

In 1953, Reese’s career picked up after she signed a contract with Jubilee Records. She joined the Hawkins Orchestra a year later, which further propelled her career.

She went on to record several hits, including “In The Still Of The Night,” “Time After Time,” and “And That Reminds Me.”

Reese also went on to star in several films and TV shows, including the long-running fantasy-drama TV series “Touched By An Angel.” She also composed the theme song for the show.

In 1986, Reese formed a gospel singing group together with other known singers, Eric Strom, Mary Clayton, O.C. Smith, and Vermettya Royster. Their gospel album was then nominated for the Grammy’s.

Reese led a successful 70-year career and eventually retired in 2014. She passed away in 2017 at the age of 86.

9. Connie Francis

Born Concetta “Connie” Rosemarie Franconero in New Jersey in 1937, Connie Francis began her music career during her teenage years, appearing for two years on NBC’s “Startime Kids.”

When she got into Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts,” the host proposed a change to her last name to “Francis” so that it was easier to pronounce.

When Francis was 17, she signed with MGM Records and recorded her first single “Freddy.” However, this song along with all her eight solos were considered a commercial flop.

In 1957, she finally had her first success with her song “The Majesty of Love,” which she performed together with American country singer Marvin Rainwater. The song was included in the Billboard Hot 100.

In 1958, Francis made another hit single “Who’s Sorry Now?” this time ranking #4 in the US charts and #1 in the UK.

She stopped performing for a time following her sexual assault in 1974. She slowly recovered and was able to resume her career in 1989.

Francis continues to be fairly active in the music scene until today.

10. Patsy Cline

Born in Virginia in 1932 as Virginia Patterson Hensley, Patsy Cline was a country music singer. She was also one of the first artists who successfully crossed over from country to pop music.

When Cline was 15, her father deserted their family. This led to Cline singing in clubs in the evenings and working at a drugstore during the day to bring in money for the household.

Not soon after, she began performing with Bill Peer’s Melody Boys and Girls. At Peer’s advice, she changed her stage name to Patsy Cline.

Cline soon signed with Four Star Records in 1954 and released her first single “A Church, a Courtroom, Then Goodbye” in 1955. The song was unfortunately not successful, but Cline continued to make several performances after that.

She caught her first huge break on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” when she sang “Walkin’ After Midnight.” The song peaked at #2 on the Billboard chart.

In 1960, Cline eventually left her first record company and signed with Decca Records. She released “I Fall To Pieces” and this song topped both the country and pop Billboard charts.

A year later, Cline recorded her biggest top hit, “Crazy.” The song soon became the “standard” for country music and remains to be one of the best country songs to this day.

Cline’s rising career in the music industry was unfortunately cut short in 1963. She died in a plane crash during a flight from Kansas to Nashville. She was only 30 years old.

11. Mindy Carson

Born in New York City in 1927, Mindy Carson was working as a secretary before she began her professional singing career. She debuted through a radio show with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra in 1946.

Carson soon joined Harry Cool’s band that same year. She proceeded to make several recordings with Cool, and of these songs were “Rumors are Flying.” The song made it into the Top 20 on the US Billboard charts and helped Carson rise to fame.

Carson sang mostly jazz songs, including “When I Fall In Love,” “The Touch Of Your Lips,” “Wake The Town And Tell The People,” and “My Foolish Heart.”

In 1949, Carson received top billing at the prestigious Copacabana nightclub in New York City. She was the youngest performer to do so.

Carson also recorded for RCA during that time, but after failing to hit the charts, they dropped her three years later in 1959.

She slowly faded from the music scene since then, but her legacy lives on despite her short career.

12. Teresa Brewer

Born Theresa Veronica Breuer, she simplified the spelling of her name to Teresa Brewer when she started her professional singing career.

Brewer was introduced to the music industry at a very early age. When she was five, she appeared on “The Major Bowes Amateur Hour” and toured with them for about eight years.

At age 18, she signed with London Records and released her first single, “When The Train Came In.” It was not until her third single, however, that she topped the charts: “Music! Music! Music!” was her first big hit, which stayed #1 for four weeks.

Her rise to fame soon earned her a regular spot in “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and she was voted America’s most popular female singer in the early ’50s.

In 1951, she left her old label and switched to Coral Records. With Coral, she made a number of hits, including “Till I Waltz Again with You,” “Pledging My Love,” and “A Sweet Old Fashioned Girl.” 

Her popularity waned after that, but she re-emerged as a jazz singer in the 1980s to the mid-1990s, produced by her husband, Bob Thiele. After Thiele’s death in 1996, Brewer stopped recording altogether and retired from the music scene.

She passed away in 2007 at age 76 and left a legacy of about 600 recorded song titles.

13. Debbie Reynolds

Born Mary Frances Reynolds in Texas in 1932, Debbie Reynolds was a woman of many talents: she was a singer, actress, and businesswoman.

At age 16, she was crowned Miss Burbank, and this brought her to the attention of talent scouts from MGM and Warner Brothers. She went to work with Warner Brothers, and at Jack L. Warner’s suggestion, she adopted the stage name “Debbie Reynolds.”

Two years later, Reynolds eventually switched to MGM after Warner Brothers stopped producing musicals.

During her time with MGM, she starred in several musical films, including “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Bundle of Joy,” and “How The West Was Won.” The song she sang for the movie “Two Weeks With Love” was the first film soundtrack that topped the charts.

She proceeded to create several hit songs for movies, and her song “Tammy” for the 1957 film “Tammy And The Bachelor” became a gold record.

Reynolds led a prolific career both in film and music. She remained to be a prominent part of the entertainment industry until her death in 2016. Reynolds died only a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher.

14. Dinah Washington

Born Ruth Lee Jones in Alabama in 1924, Dinah Washington was considered as one of the most popular black female artists in the 1950s.

At 15 years old, she regularly performed as a singer to various Chicago nightclubs. She eventually changed her stage name to Dinah Washington at the suggestion of club owner Joe Sherman.

During this time, American jazz musician Lionel Hampton was so impressed by Washington’s performances at the club that he hired her as a vocalist in his band.

Not soon after, Washington released her debut recording “Evil Gal Blues,” followed by “Salty Papa Blues.” Both songs made it to the Billboard “Harlem Hit Parade.”

She left Hampton’s band in 1946 and pursued a solo career with Mercury Records. Her debut single with Mercury “Ain’t Misbehavin'” was the first of many of hits she would make.

In 1959, her rendition of “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” earned her a Grammy for the Best Rhythm & Blues Performance. Two of her other recordings also made it to the Grammy Hall of Fame: “Unforgettable” for the pop genre and “Teach Me Tonight” for R&B.

Unfortunately, Washington fought depression much of her life, using retail therapy and prescription medications to cope. In 1963 at the age of 39, Washington died of an accidental drug overdose.

15. Ruth Brown

Ruth Alston Weston, popularly known as Ruth Brown, was born in Virginia in 1928.

Rebelling against her father, Brown began her singing career at age 17 as a vocalist in nightclubs and USO shows. A local DJ recommended her to Altantic Records, but a car accident put her in the hospital for nine months, curtailing that.

In 1948, another talent agent from Atlantic Records scouted Brown, encouraging her to sing R&B. She released her first song “So Long” in 1949, which quickly became a hit.

A year later, Brown released another hit single “Teardrops From My Eyes,” which earned her the titles “Miss Rhythm” and “Queen of R&B.”

Aside from her contributions to R&B, Brown was also a key influence in the fight for musicians’ rights for royalties. This eventually led to the founding of the independent non-profit organization Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

In the 1960s, however, Brown lay low with her career to focus on family life. She resumed her career in 1975 and starred in several films and Broadway shows, including the musical and cult classic “Hairspray.”

After a five-decade career, Brown passed away in 2006 at the age of 78.

Related: Our list of famous female singers of the 1970s.

Summing Up the List The Greatest Female Singers of the 1950s

The music of the 1950s was poignant, with clarity and soul. These and other women singers of the period brought heart and emotion through song into the lives of many.

Whether you prefer to listen to rock, country, jazz, rhythm, and blues, or show tunes, you can find someone in this list of singers that will tickle your fancy.

Check out their other songs, and you are bound to find something that will bring you delight!

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.