Rhythm & Blues (R&B) is a blanket term used to describe music recorded primarily by black artists; it combines elements of jazz, gospel, blues and soul. R&B developed in the mid-20th century along with the Great Migration that saw African-Americans leaving the South for urban industrial centers like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. The term “rhythm & blues” is credited to Jerry Wexler of Billboard Magazine; previously, R&B had been referred to as “race records”, and that term (understandably) didn’t sit well with Wexler.
As with other musical genres, men generally get much of the credit for its development, but the women of R&B have been badasses from the start. Artists like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Mamie Smith and Big Mama Thornton contributed to the development of R&B. As the decades went by, R&B evolved into sub-genres like doo-wop, disco, funk and hip-hop. The following artists were instrumental in that evolution. Here are some of the most badass women in the history of R&B.
- Etta James
Etta James is a significant artist in the development of R&B in the 50s and 60s. James primarily recorded doo-wop inspired ballads, but she could growl her way through bluesy numbers as well. Her signature song, “At Last”, is one of the greatest love songs ever recorded; her sweet and soulful voice blends perfectly with those dreamy strings. James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
- Dionne Warwick
Dionne Warwick is one of the most-charted female vocalists of all time, with fifty-six Hot 100 singles and twelve Top Ten hits. Warwick and Burt Bacharach represent one of the greatest singer/songwriter combinations ever – their collaborations include “Wishin’ and Hopin'”, “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, “Walk On By”, “The Windows of the World” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”. At the age of 80, Warwick shows no sign of slowing down; she’s still performing, and if you don’t follow her on Twitter, you’re really missing out.
- The Supremes
R&B took a big leap into the mainstream in the 60s, and Motown Records was largely responsible. Motown popularized the “girl group” sound with artists like The Marvelettes and Martha & The Vandellas, but none attained the critical and commercial success of The Supremes. Comprised of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, The Supremes are, to date, the most successful vocal group in US history, with twelve number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 (only The Beatles, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, Rihanna and Michael Jackson have had more). With some of the greatest songs of the era, a career that has influenced countless artists (among them, The Pointer Sisters and Destiny’s Child) and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, The Supremes have left a lasting legacy.
- Aretha Franklin
What can I possibly say about “The Queen of Soul” that hasn’t been said before? Not a god damn thing, so I’ll just leave this here.
- Tammi Terrell
Another sound that Motown helped popularize was the soulful duet, and no two people did duets better than Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. “You’re All I Need to Get By”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” are essential pop songs in the Motown canon. Tragically, Terrell’s career was cut short when she died of brain cancer at the age of 24, but she left behind a substantial legacy nonetheless.
- Gladys Knight
Gladys Knight & the Pips were one of the top vocal groups of the 60s and 70s; first with Motown Records, where they recorded such songs as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “If I Were Your Woman”, then with Buddah Records, where they recorded “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and the #1 smash “Midnight Train to Georgia”. Knight also had a successful solo career with songs like “License to Kill”, the theme song to the 1989 James Bond film. Known as “The Empress of Soul”, Knight was inducted, along with the Pips, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
- Merry Clayton
You might be asking yourself, “WHO?” By far the least famous woman on this list, Merry Clayton nonetheless merits a spot. She began her career at age 14 when she performed a duet with Bobby Darin titled “Who Can I Count On? (When I Can’t Count on You)” and for a time was one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes. But Clayton is most well known for providing vocals for “Gimme Shelter”, off the Rolling Stones’ 1969 masterpiece, Let It Bleed. Listening to Clayton’s voice cracking as she delivers the searing lyrics “Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away/It’s just a shot away” gives me chills every time. Clayton, who was pregnant at the time, suffered a miscarriage shortly after returning home, leading some to speculate that the physical strain of her exertions during recording were to blame.
- Tina Turner
From her early days performing with ex-husband Ike on hits like “Proud Mary” and “River Deep – Mountain High” (and surviving years of his abuse) to her 1984 comeback Private Dancer to her acting career in films like Tommy and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to her recent career as a writer, there really is nothing Tina Turner can’t do. She has sold over 100 million records, won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted with Ike into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991; she is nominated again this year as a solo artist, and she would be only the second woman (and the first black woman) to be inducted twice.
- Diana Ross
The only artist on this list twice, Diana Ross had a very successful solo career in addition to her work with the Supremes. She also made the leap into acting in films like Lady Sings the Blues, for which she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Billie Holiday. She ranks among the top five artists on the all-time Billboard Hot 100 and she was named “Female Entertainer of the Century” by Billboard in 1976. She was responsible for #1 hits like “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”, “Love Hangover”, “Upside Down” and “Endless Love”, her 1981 duet with Lionel Richie. Her role as an R & B legend is unequivocal.
- Thelma Houston and Gloria Gaynor
Thelma Houston and Gloria Gaynor are responsible for two of the most iconic and abiding #1 singles of the disco era; Houston’s 1977 smash “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and Gaynor’s 1978 phenomenon “I Will Survive” were both runaway successes. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” became the unofficial theme song for the HIV/AIDS epidemic among the gay community, and “I Will Survive” is the biggest dance anthem of all time. If you can hear either song without shaking your groove thing, you’re a stronger person than I.
- Donna Summer
Known as “The Queen of Disco”, Donna Summer recorded some of the most iconic songs of the 70s and 80s, including forty-two Hot 100 singles and four #1s – “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”, her duet with Barbra Streisand. Her three-octave voice could belt or coo, and it harmonized exceptionally – listen to “I Feel Love” to hear how well she harmonized with herself. She oozed sex appeal, but also sang about female empowerment. Her sixteen minute opus to sexual ecstasy, “Love to Love You Baby”, contained (by the BBC’s count) 23 orgasms; an edited version of the song became Summer’s first top 10 hit.
- Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson comes by her talent naturally; the youngest of ten, Janet’s older brothers were superstars by the time she was in elementary school. Jackson began her career as an actress in such television shows as Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes and Fame. At age twenty, she catapulted to pop music fame with Control, her #1 smash album that contains five top 5 hits. Her next album, Rhythm Nation 1814, became the best selling album of 1990 and yielded seven top 5 hits. It is also the only album in history to produce #1 hits in three consecutive calendar years (1989-1991). Jackson continued her musical success through the 90s with albums like Janet and The Velvet Rope, and began a successful movie career with 1993’s Poetic Justice. She is a fashion icon, one of the most successful female recording artists of all time, and an all-around badass.
- Whitney Houston
Another artist who came by her talent naturally (her maternal aunt is Dionne Warwick), Whitney Houston became a superstar at age twenty-two with the release of her first album, Whitney Houston, which stayed at #1 on the album chart for fourteen weeks and yielded three #1 singles. Her follow-up, Whitney, debuted at #1 on the album chart and produced four #1 singles. Her musical career continued to flourish in the 90s, and she launched a successful film career with 1992’s The Bodyguard, in which she starred as – and this was quite a stretch – a pop star. Her musical contributions to the film, including the #1 sensation “I Will Always Love You”, made the soundtrack the best-selling album of 1993. By the early 2000s, Houston’s personal struggles and drug use began to overshadow her career, and Houston tragically died in 2012 when she accidentally drowned in the bathtub of her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. But her status as one of the best R&B singers ever remains intact. Houston was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020.
- Queen Latifah
From her early career as one of the most successful female hip-hop artists to her Oscar-nominated turn as Matron “Mama” Morton in Chicago to her recent jazz-inspired recordings, Queen Latifah is constantly transforming, but always stays true to herself. She is a fashion and feminist icon, and an absolute badass.
- Mariah Carey
With her bonkers five-octave range and incredible vocal runs (known as melisma), Mariah Carey has one of the most distinctive voices in R&B. With the release of her self-titled debut album in 1990, Carey became an overnight sensation at just twenty years old, and was the first artist in history to have their first five singles go to #1 on the Hot 100. With sales of more than 200 million worldwide and nineteen #1 singles, she is one of the most successful female artists of any genre.
Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas – TLC – are one of the most successful female vocal groups of all time. Their signature blend of R&B, funk and hip-hop – along with their sexy, edgy image – made them superstars. TLC recorded three of the most successful albums of the 90s, and scored four #1 hits – “Waterfalls”, “Creep”, “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty”. The video for “Waterfalls” made TLC the first black act to win the MTV Video Music Award (VMA) for Video of the Year. In 2002, before their fourth album could be completed, Lopes died in an auto accident; T-Boz and Chilli carried on as a duo.
- Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott
Missy Elliott is the best selling female rapper in history, and a consummate badass. Songs like “Work It” and “Get Ur Freak On”, and their companion videos, made Elliott one of the most successful hip-hop artists of the 2000s. She was the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and she paved the way for future artists such as Eve, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. She’s a feminist, a fashion icon and one of the most impossibly cool human beings on the planet.
- Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé
Destiny’s Child exploded onto the pop music scene with the release of their second album, The Writing’s on the Wall, in 1999. The album yielded two #1 hits, “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Say My Name”. Their second album, Survivor, entered the Billboard album chart at #1 and generated two more #1 singles, “Independent Women Part I” and “Bootylicious”. In 2002 and 2003, on hiatus from the group, all three members released solo albums, and the most successful – by far – was Beyoncé’s Dangerously in Love. Destiny’s Child officially disbanded in 2006, and Beyoncé has continued to dominate pop music ever since. She’s won more Grammy Awards than any other artist in history (thirty-two after last night). She’s won more MTV VMAs than any other artist in history. She won a Peabody Award in 2017 for Lemonade. She’s an actress, a fashion designer, a philanthropist and a bona fide badass.
Rihanna is the best-selling artist of the 21st century – and seventh on the all-time list – with more than 250 million albums sold. Her distinctive Caribbean-inspired (she’s from Barbados) dance music and her sexy, provocative image have made her a superstar. Like other artists on this list, she too made the foray into acting and fashion design. She is known for her humanitarian efforts, donating millions to HIV/AIDS and cancer research, and COVID-19 relief. She is sexy as hell, and a complete and total badass.
Some other badass women of R&B: