Our Ten Best: Female Rock Vocalists

Female singers have been an important part of the Rock, Pop and Folk music world for decades in a band setting and as solo artists. Some have timeless vocal talent, along with incredible stage presence, while others have been singer-songwriters whose work has influenced countless others.

Here is our list of the top ten classic rock female artists:

1-Janis Joplin- This Port Arthur, Texas native, burst upon the music scene in the late ‘60s and made her mark in a male dominated music scene. Her earthy, blues soaked vocals drip with heartfelt emotion and her phrasing was second to none. Joplin’s debut album was released on Columbia records in August 1967 and her dynamic rendering of Big Mama Thorton’s “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival wowed the audience. In 1968 she billed her band as Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Holding Company. Her second album, “Cheap Thrills” had a live feel to it and it gave rock aficionados a new star. Her “Piece of my Heart” is required listening for any aspiring blues wailer. After splitting from Big Brother and the Holding Company, she formed a group named The Kozmic Blues Band, which backed her at Woodstock. After a lukewarm reaction from audiences and critics alike, Joplin’s new backing band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, played on her posthumously released masterpiece, “Pearl,” which featured the Kris Kristofferson penned hit “Me and Bobbie McGee” and “Mercedes Benz.” Her last live public appearance was on August 12, 1970 at Harvard Stadium. Sadly, Joplin died from a combination of heroin and alcohol on October 4, 1970, just two weeks after Jimi Hendrix’s death.

Her legacy continues to this day and anyone who hears her voice on songs like “Cry Baby” and “Move Over” will be a fan forever. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

2-Ann Wilson (Heart) – This rock songstress was an integral link to later female rock and rollers. Heart, formed in Vancouver, British Columbia with sister Nancy Wilson on rhythm guitar in 1973, was the first Led Zeppelin derivative group fronted by women featuring the dynamic lead guitar work of the Jimmy Page influenced Roger Fisher and later the talented Howard Leese. Heart was the first female band that had creative control of its material and production. Most importantly, the band showcased Ann Wilson’s powerful and melodic voice on such classic rock gems like, “Barracuda, “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man,” “Kick It Out” and the gorgeous ballad “Dog and Butterfly” (from the double platinum 1978 album of the same name). Their live version of the aforementioned Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” rivals the original. The band had a resurgence in the ‘80s with 1985’s “Heart” that featured “What About Love,” “Never” and “These Dreams and the “Bad Animals” album which showcased Wilson’s voice on “Alone” and “Who Will You Run To?” Around this time record company pressure focused on her weight gain and forced the group to film her in extreme close-ups and in black garb in videos to hide her appearance. Through it all her voice has remained an indispensable part of the Heart legacy. The band released “Red Velvet Car” on August 31, 2010, continued their U.S. tour and added a European leg in the fall.

3-Linda Ronstadt– An amazingly talented vocalist, Ronstadt has sung country-rock (“Silver Threads and Golden Needles”), Motown (a cover of Martha Reeves and the Vandella’s “Heat Wave”) , rock and roll roots songs (Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy, Chuck Berry’s “Livin’ in the U.S.A.” and the Everly Brother’s “When Will I Be Loved”). Ronstadt’s standards period, with orchestration by Nelson Riddle on “What’s New” (1983), “Lush Life” (1985) and “For Sentimental Reasons” (1986) gave her career a boost. Her range, which spans several octaves ( contralto to soprano) is amazing and her interpretations of other people’s work has exposed listeners to music they might never have heard without her renditions. She was also the first female artist to record four consecutive platinum albums. Ronstadt’s pin-up stage in the ‘70s obscures that fact that she is a supremely talented vocalist whose chameleon –like adaptability to different genres is quite rare. “Heart Like a Wheel” is a must album to put on your listening list.

4-Grace Slick (born Grace Barnett Wing)- A fashion model in her early days in San Francisco, this dynamic vocalist was a member of The Great Society, which released a version of her later hit with Jefferson Airplane, “Someone to Love” which later became “Somebody to Love.” In 1966 Jefferson Airplane’s singer Signe Toly Anderson left the band and Slick was asked to join. She took the aforementioned “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” two songs she had done with the Great Society and recorded “Surrealistic Pillow,” Jefferson Airplane’s landmark release. Both singles became huge hits and catapulted Slick and her band to stardom. The Jefferson Airplane preformed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and were guests on The Ed Sullivan Show, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. A later 70’s version (Jefferson Starship) achieved success with The Red Octopus album and later commercial material (“We Built this City”). In all of the band’s incarnations, Slick’s unique voice always stood out.

5-Carole King-
The ultimate singer-songwriter, King who was graduate of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, started as a prolific songwriter with ex- husband Gerry Goffin penning such rock and roll classics as “Under the Boardwalk,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Locomotion” and “Up on the Roof,” to name a few. Her 1971 landmark album Tapestry featured King’s versions of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” (song of the year in 1971). “Jazzman” from “Wrap around Joy” was a top ten hit in March of 1975. In 2010 King Collaborated with her long-time friend James Taylor on the “Troubadour Reunion Tour,” which spawned a live CD and DVD. King’s sonorous and strong vocals are a hallmark of this quintessential singer-songwriter.

6- Pat Benatar- This songstress possesses three octave range and got her start at the New York Mecca for comedy, Catch a Rising Star. Benatar, 57, quit her job as a bank teller to pursue rock stardom. Her toughness (“Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and “Heartbreaker”) endeared her to female fans while her sexy image and stage presence attracted a male following. She married her guitarist Neal “Spyder” Geraldo in 1982.Benatar wrote her biography “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” in 2010 to rave reviews. She is a one of a kind singer who was a major influence on female rockers who followed in her footsteps.

7-Joan Jett (Joan Marie Larkin)-This native of Philadelphia was a founding member of the highly innovative female band, The Runaways along with Sandy West, Jackie Fox, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford. Jett shared lead vocals and played rhythm guitar for five albums and a live CD. Never able to achieve major success in the United States, the band eventually dissolved, but its impact on the rock world was indelible. Jett recently coached Kristen Stewart for a bio-pic on the Runaways Though a sanitized version of real events, it told an interesting story about young women under the guiding hand of an unscrupulous manager (Kim Fowley).In the Spring of ’79 Jett hit “pay dirt” with the Arrow’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll,”which became a rock anthem. Later hits included “Bad Reputation” (1981) and the Bruce Springsteen penned, “Light of Day” (title track of the movie she starred in with Michael J. Fox). Her stage persona of being clad in leather with a low slung guitar has added to her mystique, while her recent song “A.C.D.C,” which features Carmen Electra, rivals her earlier material- Jett can still rock.

8-Stevie Nicks- Her ethereal vocals and bewitching image have been a part of the rock and roll world since her breakthrough with Fleetwood Mac in 1975. Her then boyfriend and musical partner Lyndsey Buckingham joined forces with the already established band and took it to new commercial heights with the landmark releases “Fleet wood Mac,” and “Rumors”the latter having sold forty million copies world wide (19 million in the U.S.). Her earthy vocal style and Buckingham’s one of a kind guitar playing style put the band on the map with classics like, “Dreams,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Gold Dust Woman,” “Landslide” and “Crystal.” Nicks 1981 solo album “Bella Donna, besides selling five million copies, helped to establish Nicks as a viable artist in her own right. At that time Rolling Stone magazine dubbed her “The Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll.” Her battles with cocaine addiction, weight and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome notwithstanding, she has garnered five Grammy nominations and won one for album of the year with “Rumors.” Nicks was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the other members of Fleetwood Mac in 1998.

9- Patty Smyth- She hit the music world running with her band Scandal (“Good Bye to You” and “Love’s Got a Line on You”), yet achieved further success as a solo performer, dueting with Eagle’s drummer and singer Don Henley on “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” (1992). Her 1987 album “Never Enough” is a fantastic release that is under-appreciated. Smyth’s dynamic and raspy vocals are quite unique and her high profile marriages to Richard Hell of The Voidoids and tennis great John McEnroe (currently) don’t take away from the fact that she is a rock and roll treasure. Smyth was on an episode of VH1’s “Band’s Reunited” (2004) which chronicled a reunion of Scandal.

10- Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention)-Last, but certainly not least, this pioneer of the British folk-rock movement was one of rock’s hidden gems. Her tenure in Fairport Convention as lead vocalist and songwriter, took that band’s direction away from American West Coast derivative styled music to them performing traditional compositions and original material. Two of her albums with Fairport Convention, “Fairport Live Convention” (1974) and “Rising for the Moon” are musts on a music wish list. Her solo material, especially 1972’s “Sandy” are testaments to her brilliance as a singer and songwriter (“Bushes and Briars” and “It Suits Me Well.”) Denny also had a cameo in Lou Reizner’s Rock Opera version of the Who’s “Tommy” and is known by hard rockers the world over for her duet with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on the “Battle of Evermore” (Led Zeppelin four or the “Runes Album”). Her call and response vocal interplay with Plant is a legendary moment on one of classic rock’s greatest albums (see reviewfix.com’s top ten classic album list on this site).A sad footnote to Denny’s career is her vocal deterioration from cigarette and alcohol use and her untimely death at the age of 31 in 1978, due to injuries she sustained from a fall down a staircase Her legacy will not be forgotten.

Honorable Mention- Debbie Harry, Judy Collins, Tina Turner, Joan Baez and Annie Lennox

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Steve Janowsky is a former co-host of the Rocktologists theme based classic rock show radio show on WKRB 90.3 fm, which was voted the best classic rock podcast in the country by Dave White of About.com. Some of the interview guests on the show were Simon Kirke ( Free and Bad Company), Carl Palmer (ELP), Vince Martell (Vanilla Fudge), Randy Jackson (Zebra) and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Janowsky is also an English and Journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is an avid guitar player and songwriter.

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Steve Janowsky is a former co-host of the Rocktologists theme based classic rock show radio show on WKRB 90.3 fm, which was voted the best classic rock podcast in the country by Dave White of About.com. Some of the interview guests on the show were Simon Kirke ( Free and Bad Company), Carl Palmer (ELP), Vince Martell (Vanilla Fudge), Randy Jackson (Zebra) and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Janowsky is also an English and Journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is an avid guitar player and songwriter.

1 Comment

  1. Good to see a Top 10 List again – I’ve always enjoyed those. All of these ladies are definitely worthy of respect in pop and rock music, but Lita Ford is more “Rock “than about a third of them …

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