The 1960s were a decade filled with political and social action, civil rights, gay rights, and feminist activism. The music world saw a shift away from the popular rock and roll of the 1950s and an emergence of folk music and all-female singing groups.
The counterculture of the sixties culminated in the 1969 music festival Woodstock. This four-day festival in New York saw over 400,000 attendees, about eight times as many as organizers expected.
Many talented musicians emerged in this decade, while others had continued success from previous decades. We’ve put together a list of the 15 greatest and most famous female singers of the 1960s.
1. Aretha Franklin
One of the biggest stars of the 60s, Aretha Franklin, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and started singing gospel music when she was a child.
She moved to New York at the age of 18 and released her first album, Aretha, in 1961 with the Ray Bryant Combo. Her self-titled album was a mix of doo-wop, jazz, and R&B.
Her hit song Respect was released in 1967 and became a popular song in the feminist movement. It also won two Grammy Awards.
Franklin’s other hits included “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
2. Janis Joplin
Singer and songwriter Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas. She began singing in high school and continued throughout college.
In 1963, she traveled to San Francisco and in 1966, joined the band Big Brother and the Holding Company. She sang with the band for two years before starting her career as a solo artist.
Her mix of rock, soul, and blues music includes hit songs like “Piece of My Heart,” “Mercedes Benz,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Joplin performed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and died just over a year later at the age of 27 from a drug overdose.
3. Tina Turner
Hailing from Brownsville, Tennessee, Tina Turner has been called the Queen of Rock and Roll.
She began her career singing alongside Ike Turner before embarking on a solo career.
The duo released the song “A Fool in Love” in 1960 as well as “River Deep Mountain High” in 1966. Their 1961 hit “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock and Roll Performance.
Tina Turner then went solo and was a hugely popular artist in the 70s and 80s with some massive hits like “Sometimes When We Touch,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Private Dancer,” and “Simply the Best.”
Related: Read more famous female singers of the 1970s here.
4. Diana Ross
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Diana Ross spent her youth in both Alabama and Detroit.
When Ross was 15, she joined a singing group called the Primettes. In 1961, this group was renamed as the Supremes and signed on with Motown Records.
Ross was the lead vocalist for the group, which achieved great success in the 1960s with a dozen number-one songs. In 1964, they released the hit song “Where Did Our Love Go.”
The following year their song “Baby Love” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best R&B Recording.
In 1965, the Supremes released “Stop In The Name of Love,” which was also nominated for a Grammy Award.
5. Patsy Cline
Born in Winchester, Virginia, Patsy Cline began singing as a child at church. At 13, she developed rheumatic fever and was hospitalized with a throat infection. She has said that this changed her vocal capabilities.
In 1957, she performed the song Walkin’ After Midnight, which brought her initial success. She released her first album the same year.
In the 1960s, Cline’s career peaked, and she released songs including “She’s Got You” and “I Fall to Pieces,” which both went to number one in the US country charts.
But, sadly, her career was cut short as Cline was killed in an airplane accident in 1963.
6. Nina Simone
Born in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone was a legendary female jazz singer who was big in the 1960s.
She released her debut album, Little Girl Blue, in 1959. She continued with a number of hits throughout the rest of the 60s, including the protest anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” which came out in 1964.
It was inspired by the murders of Emmett Till, who was 14 years old when he was killed by two white men in 1955, and Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist killed by a white supremacist in 1963.
Other Simone songs included “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Trouble in Mind,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” Blues.”
7. Cass Elliot
Singer Cass Elliot was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and began her music career with The Big Three in the early 1960s. She was also a member of the band The Mugwumps.
Elliot is also famous for her role in the folk-rock group The Mamas & The Papas, which singer and guitarist John Phillips led. They released their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, in 1966.
The Mamas & The Papas had several hit songs, including “California Dreamin’,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Monday Monday,” and “Words of Love.”
Though the band was only active from 1965 until 1968, they were one of the most well-known groups of the decade.
8. Etta James
R&B and soul singer Etta James was born in Los Angeles, California, and began training as a singer at the age of five.
James released her debut album “At Last” in 1960, which included the hit song I Just Want to Make Love to You. The following year her famous song, At Last, came out.
She was nominated for four Grammy Awards in the 1960s, including two for Best R&B Performance and two for Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance by a female.
James was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2003.
9. Nancy Sinatra
The daughter of great jazz singer Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. She studied music at UCLA before beginning her recording career.
She had several hits in the 1960s, including “Sugar Town,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” “Summer Wine,” “Some Velvet Morning,” and “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”
Sinatra was most well known for her 1966 hit “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” It was nominated for three Grammy Awards.
She also sang the theme song for the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice.
10. Dusty Springfield
Singer Dusty Springfield was born in London, England. Her music career started as a singer in the group The Lana Sisters in 1958.
She also performed as a member of The Springfields before starting her solo career in 1963.
She released her debut solo album, “A Girl Called Dusty,” in 1964, followed by four additional albums over the next five years.
Her hit songs released in the 1960s included “I Only Want to Be With You,” “I’ll Try Anything,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”
Springfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two weeks after she passed away.
11. Martha Reeves
Born in Eufaula, Alabama, Martha Reeves began her singing career as a teenager with the pop group the Fascinations in 1959.
She later became part of the all-female singing group Martha and the Vandellas. She was the lead singer, accompanied by Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard.
This Motown group had several hit songs in the 1960s, including “Heatwave” in 1963 and “I’m Ready for Love” in 1966. Heatwave was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance.
The group’s most popular song was “Dancing in the Street,” which came out in 1964. It became a civil rights anthem for many who protested during this decade.
12. Joan Baez
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Joan Baez was born in Staten Island, New York. She lived in California for much of her childhood, as well as in different areas of the world, including Canada, Europe, and Iraq.
A folk music artist, Baez made her career debut with her self-titled album in 1960. Three more successful albums followed this in the next three years.
She recorded a number of songs that were written by Bob Dylan, helping to bring attention to the relatively unknown artist at the time.
Her hits included “Diamonds and Rust” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Baez was very active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and spoke out against the Vietnam War.
13. Mary Wells
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Mary Wells overcame a number of physical challenges in her childhood, including tuberculosis and meningitis.
She started singing at church and later on at nightclubs, eventually signing with Motown Records in 1960 at the age of 17.
She was often referred to as the Queen of Motown and had several hit songs in the 1960s, including “The One Who Really Loves You,” “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Two Lovers,” and “Dear Lover.” Her most famous song, “My Guy,” came out in 1964.
14. Lesley Gore
Lesley Gore was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in New Jersey. In 1963, she released the song “It’s My Party,” which became a sensational pop hit.
She was 16 years old and still in high school at the time, and the song received a nomination for a Grammy Award.
Gore followed up that same year with popular songs “You Don’t Own Me,” “She’s a Fool,” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.”
Especially popular among teenage girls, Gore was one of the symbols of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s.
15. Peggy March
And finally, pop singer Peggy March hails from Lansdale, Pennsylvania. At the age of 14, she recorded the song “I Will Follow Him.”
The single reached number one on the charts, making her the youngest female music artist to achieve such a feat.
March’s other songs included “Hello Heartache,” “Goodbye Love,” which came out in 1963, and “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” from 1967.
She also released several songs in German in the 1960s and three Italian songs.
Final Thoughts on Female Singers of the 1960s
While the 1960s saw a resurgence of folk music, you can see from our list that all genres of music were represented during this decade.
From country and rock to R&B and pop, musicians of the 1960s were a diverse and talented group.