The 1940s was a tumultuous period for the world as war raged and then people dealt with the aftermath. But despite such turmoil going on, it was rich in musical change and variety.
Of course, given the many talents the decade produced, it is challenging to narrow down the most famous singers of the 1940s. But in this post, we’ve put together a list of our favorite eleven singers. Let’s start with one of the most well-known, Ella Fitzgerald.
1. Ella Fitzgerald
A young Ella Fitzgerald made her career while collaborating with Charles Webb on “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Like many jazz standards of the 1940s, the song took inspiration from nursery rhymes and quickly became a standard for the ages.
As the 1940s continued, Fitzgerald became a notable jazz singer in her own right. Occasionally she collaborated with fellow Jazz artist Louis Armstrong on songs like “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” but she performed independently too.
Fitzgerald retired in 1993, but she left an indelible mark on the jazz world.
2. Louis Armstrong
Known as Pops, Satch, or Satchmo, Louis Armstrong was a New Orleans–born jazz singer who left a strong impression on the music world of the 1940s. He was an adept trumpet player and had a highly distinctive singing voice.
Armstrong inspired the shift in jazz improvisation. Previously, improvisations were a collaborative, orchestral affair. But Armstrong was so skillful on the trumpet that his improvisations were often solo performances designed to show off his stylistic playing.
His best-remembered songs from the 1940s include “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.”
3. Édith Piaf
Piaf spent several years literally singing for her supper in Parisian streets. Her first official break came when a cabaret manager noticed her and offered her a job in 1935.
From there, Piaf quickly became a name to conjure with. Her short stature meant she was dubbed la môme piaf, or “the little sparrow.” Piaf took it in stride, and over time it became her career name.
She’s best known for songs like “La Vie en Rose” and “Je ne Regrette Rien.” Piaf died in 1963.
Related: For more like Édith Piaf, see our post on French female singers here.
4. Frank Sinatra
Francis Albert “Frank” Sinatra became a household name during World War II. He was in a rare position to start his career at the time since a punctured eardrum left him unfit for military service.
Sinatra had a rich, warm baritone, and the atmosphere of loneliness the war evoked made him well-suited to equally warm, often sentimental songs in the 1940s like ”I’ve Got The World On A String” or “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
Sinatra’s popularity ebbed after the war but came back in the 1960s. He’s still one of the most memorable singers, not only of the Big Band but the Rat Pack era.
5. The Andrews Sisters
Our list cannot be complete without the Andrews Sisters. They were a singing trio—LaVerne Sofia, Maxene Angelyn, and Patricia Marie—who were often referred to as the Queens of Jukebox.
During World War II, their “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (1941) became popular, reaching #6 on the US pop singles chart, and ranked #6 on the Songs of the Century list. Another 1940s favorite was “Rum And Coca Cola,” which, though controversial, still peaked on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, staying there for 10 weeks.
The Andrews Sisters helped boost the morale of soldiers during wartime by touring bases, war zones, and hospitals, and their song “Any Bonds Today?” helped encourage US citizens to purchase war bonds.
Through the years, many of their songs were used in TV shows and Hollywood movies like Homefront, Gilmore Girls, and Memoirs of a Geisha, to name a few. The sisters also inspired many of our contemporary singers, like Christina Aguilera.
6. Bing Crosby
Harry Lillis Crosby Jr., better known as Bing Crosby, was an acclaimed actor, singer, and television presenter. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Crosby was a dominant force in the 1940s, frequently appearing alongside Bob Hope.
Crosby got his big break in the 1920s after he moved to Los Angeles to seek fame. By the 1940s, he was already a huge commercial success.
However, his most popular song didn’t come until 1941, with the release of “White Christmas.” It was #1 in the charts for 11 weeks in 1942, sold more than 50 million copies, and is still the best-selling single in music history.
During World War II, Crosby transformed into a national icon and regularly performed for the Allied forces. At the war’s end, he had done much to boost GI morale.
7. Billie Holiday
Legendary jazz and swing singer Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in 1915. Her career began when she started singing in Harlem nightclubs, where her exceptional vocal technique and improvisational skill drew immediate attention.
Holiday’s first success came in 1935 with “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.” From there, her success grew with multiple commercial hits.
But despite thriving throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Holiday wrestled with a variety of problems. Some were legal, and some were the result of drug abuse.
Called Lady Day by friends, Holiday died in 1959. She remains a demonstrably brilliant musician and won several posthumous Grammy Awards for her contribution to music.
8. Judy Garland
Frances Ethel Gumm, later Judy Garland, was born in 1922. Her musical career began at 13 when she signed a contract with MGM. Despite her talent as a singer, the studio struggled to cast Garland in roles besides those of child ingénues for years.
Her career break came late in the 1930s when she played Dorothy Gale in The Wizard Of Oz. The success was immediate, and she spent the 1940s featuring in various musical productions such as Babes On Broadway and For Me And My Gal.
Perhaps because it was Garland’s first grown-up role, one of her best-remembered performances was in the 1944 musical Meet Me In St Louis. In the film, she famously sang “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
Despite her successes, Garland struggled with addictions for the rest of her life. She died in 1969, but her career in the 1940s remains enduring.
9. Erline Harris
Born Erlyn Eloise Johnson, Erline Harris was a famous rhythm and blues singer. She debuted at the Club Plantation in St. Louis, Missouri.
Harris’s signature song was “Rock and Roll Blues,” and when she landed her first record deal, it was inevitable it played a part.
Her popularity continued into the 1950s. Despite this, she stopped performing shortly afterward, and while she still sang occasionally at clubs, Harris spent the remainder of her adult life prioritizing her children.
Harris was one of the first female vocalists to attempt rhythm and blues. That paved the way for future singers to continue her musical legacy.
10. Nat “King” Cole
Born in 1919, Nat “King” Cole began dabbling in music as a child. He was good at it, and by 1938, he had his own trio and played in nightclubs.
But before Cole made a name for himself as one of the jazz greats, he was a crooner. His voice had a rich, smooth vocal quality that made his versions of songs like “Unforgettable” memorable.
Eventually, Cole’s innovative jazz made him one of the most famous jazz musicians of the 1940s. His signature piece was “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” inspired by his preacher father.
11. Vera Lynn
Born Vera Margaret Welch, Dame Vera Lynn is immediately synonymous with World War Two. She’s best remembered for her war songs, like “We’ll Meet Again” and “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over (The White Cliffs of Dover).”
Lynn began singing while traveling with Bert Ambrose in 1937. When the war broke out, Lynn kept singing. This time she eschewed aristocratic company for London air raid shelters and tube platforms.
Everyone loved her, and she became known as the the Forces Sweetheart. By 1941, she had a spot on the radio program Sincerely Yours. The program stopped when Singapore fell, but she was back on air by 1943.
Her popularity continued after the war, and she gave her final performance at the Queen’s 1995 jubilee singing, as ever, “We’ll Meet Again.”
Summing Up Our List Of Famous 1940s Singers
It’s hard to separate the decade from the war that consumed it, but the sentimental cant of war songs aren’t our only musical inheritance from the 1940s.
Indeed, it was a time of musical change, full of jazz, swing, big band, and musical innovation.
The singers who most memorably reflect the era demonstrate that innovation. It’s why when those songs come on the air today, they don’t just transport us in time; they hold up to further listening. And that’s a legacy to cherish.