by Everett True, The Stranger
1. BILLIE HOLIDAY
The voice of jazz, Lady Day overcame numerous obstacles during her life. Born into extreme poverty and racial prejudice in Philadelphia in 1915, she survived rape as a child, prostitution, and imprisonment before headlining at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre. Her iiyubjmbeat vocal style wasn’t to everyone’s liking and her range was limited, but when matched with longtime lover and tenor sax player Lester Young, her tonal variations and instinctive phrasing could hit extraordinary heights — especially on songs like God Bless the Child and Good Morning Heartache. The fact that she died under humiliating circumstances in 1959, surrounded by a police guard in a hospital, is a sad testament to how society still treats its premier artists.
2. ARETHA FRANKLIN
There are certain notes that cannot be reached on any instrument — and most of them are in Aretha Franklin’s repertoire. Although the Queen of Soul’s reputation is based almost entirely on her Atlantic Records soul output between ’66 and ’72, Franklin did enough during those years to prove herself the greatest singer of the latter half of the 20th century. (Even now, her reading of Respect is synonymous with women’s rights.) She was tutored by her father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, and by major gospel stars Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, and raised in the church. Sadly, the real shame about Aretha is the substandard material she records. However, 1987’s return to her roots, One Lord One Faith One Baptism, proves she still has a commanding voice
3. BESSIE SMITH
She drank heavily, had incredibly bad taste in men, and was fatally injured in a 1937 car crash. Her songs ranged from bawdy vaudeville to slow blues to upbeat swing. Louis Armstrong was among her many noted accompanists. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894, Smith was one of the first blues artists to sell huge numbers of records. Her influence is impossible to gauge, as so many of her peers borrowed so heavily from her deep, raw-throated style. Bessie Smith was, without doubt, the Empress of the Blues.
Her record company (Maverick) may have been responsible for bringing the whiny harridan Morissette to public attention, but we’ll forgive Ms. Ciccone the odd lapse. More than anyone, Madonna has deconstructed the role of the female singer in popular music — through her songs, her deliberately iconographic videos, and her studiously outrageous live shows, along with her much-vaunted talent as a businesswoman. What’s amazing about Madonna is that on several different occasions, her fame has reached a point where it threatens to obscure all else — but her music always wins. This is the most consistently innovative pop star of the ’80s and ’90s.
5. NINA SIMONE
Simone would undoubtedly be more famous if she wasn’t so outspoken. Stories about this notoriously emotional singer depict her fiery rage — from one occasion where she chased a late-paying record label boss around his office with a knife, to another where she took a shotgun to a neighbor’s son for playing his grunge music too loud. But her temper (and her powerful, soulful voice) is her strongest asset. Fans admire Simone’s often brutal honesty, the way she won’t suffer fools. A classically trained pianist, Simone has recorded extensively in many different styles: soul, blues, pop, gospel, Broadway… all in her own compulsive, unique voice. Simone authored the second black national anthem, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.
6. JOAN JETT
I love rock ‘n’ roll/Put another dime in the jukebox, baby. Ironic, really, that it finally took a woman to define rock ‘n’ roll, considering rock is such a patriarchal form. Jett’s Sex Pistols-produced debut solo album, Bad Reputation, was released on an independent label — corporate America ignored the singer after the breakup of her first band, the all-female Runaways. Jett is included here above other female rock icons such as Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry for her influence on the Riot Grrls of Olympia (rock music’s first
7. MAHALIA JACKSON
The first gospel superstar, Jackson crossed boundaries of race and creed with her emotive, expressive contralto and blues-influenced music (similar to Bessie Smith’s). Born in a New Orleans slum in 1911, Jackson joined her local Baptist church choir at the age of four, and by the time she’d reached her teens she’d developed her own definitive, rhythm-led style. Her 1948 reading of Move On Up a Little Higher is the best-selling gospel record of all time. In the ’60s, she became a force in the black civil rights movement, and even sang Precious Lord at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.
8. TAMMY WYNETTE
Feminists decry her because of Stand by Your Man. Indeed, many of her 20 (self-penned) number-one country hits are about either standing by your man or getting divorced. But listen to the lyrics: After all, he’s just a man…. Doesn’t that indicate pity rather than obedience? Wynette led a turbulent life: The country star picked cotton as a kid, and went through a couple of stormy marriages, an unexplained beating, several stomach operations, and drug dependency. She’s listed here not only because she had an incredibly soulful voice, but because she — alongside Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline — defined female county music in the ’70s and beyond.
9. YOKO ONO
She has borne herself with more integrity and dignity than all her critics combined. She has generated an incredible body of work — articulate, experimental, feminist, inspirational — as 1992’s massive Ono Box Set proves. She positively influenced John Lennon — possibly the most important popular music icon of late 20th century — encouraging him to lose his misogyny and become politically active. (She was also directly responsible for Lennon’s finest work, the primal scream therapy of Plastic Ono Band.) She has influenced generations of left-field musicians, from PiL to Sonic Youth to Huggy Bear. Ono is America’s most underrated artist.
10. LAURYN HILL
Not a great hiphop artist (The Miseducation Of… is a pop album; the Fugees’ work draws directly from ’70s soul), but terribly important nonetheless. Through both her sex and her unflagging determination to keep reinventing her music, Hill has proved that rap doesn’t need to be ugly or preachy or fall into whitey’s gangsta stereotypes. Here is a modern-day role model to end all role models.