This article gives a brief look at some of the most successful (and/or) trendsetting black female vocalists during the decade of the 70's.
The 70's was a decade in which R&B music came into it's own with many off-shoots ranging from standard classic soul to funk to Gospel to disco and Quiet Storm (also known as slow jams or slow grooves).
(Listed in alphabetical order by last name)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “This Will Be” (1975), “I’ve Got Love On My Mind” (1976), “Our Love” (1978)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Unpredictable (1977)
Biggest Hit Overall: “Pink Cadillac” (1988)
Best Selling Album Overall: Unforgettable… with Love (1991)
Movies: “Always Outnumbered” (1998), “DeLovely” (2004)
Trivia: Natalie Cole was born on February 6, 1950 and is the daughter of the legendary Nat King Cole. Natalie was fourteen when her father died of cancer. Cole has won nine Grammy Awards. Her biggest selling album “Unforgettable… with Love” is an album of standards previously performed by Nat King Cole. The album includes a rendition of “Unforgettable” in which Nat King Cole’s 1951 recording of the song was edited and remixed to create a duet with Natalie. This duet recording won three Grammy Awards with the album winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. Natalie Cole died on December 31, 2015 from congestive heart failure at the age of 65.
Natalie Cole - I've Got Love On My Mind (1976)
Gwen Dickey (Lead singer of Rose Royce)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “Car Wash,” (1976), “I Wanna Get Next To You” (1977), “Wishing On A Star” (1978), “Love Don’t Live Her Anymore” (1978)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Rose Royce II: In Full Bloom (1977)
Trivia: The band Rose Royce first formed as an instrumental group named Total Concept Unlimited in 1973. They toured backing big named singers such as Edwin Starr. It was Edwin Starr who introduced the band to songwriter/producer Norman Whitfield. At this point the group was now going by the name Magic Wand. Through their connection with Norman Whitfield, the band began working with The Undisputed Truth (they had a hit with the song “Smiling Faces Sometimes”). It was Joe Harris the leader of Undisputed Truth that introduced Gwen Dickey to the members of Magic Wand. Shortly after their meeting Gwen became the band’s lead singer and the band changed it’s name to Rose Royce.
Rose Royce - Wishing On A Star (1978)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (1972), “Where Is The Love” (1972), “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (1973), “Feel Like Making Love” (1974), “The Closer I Get To You” (1978)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Killing Me Softly (1973)
Trivia: Roberta Flack was the first to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year two consecutive years in a row. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" won at the 1973 Grammy Awards Ceremony and "Killing Me Softly with His Song" won at the 1974 Grammy Awards Ceremony. She remains the only solo artist to have accomplished this feat, and only U2, who did it in 2001 with "Beautiful Day" and in 2002 with "Walk On", has done it since. In total Flack has won four Grammy Awards and one American Music Award. While she was a teacher at a Jr. High School in Washington DC, Les McCann discovered Flack when she was playing piano and singing in a nightclub. Her biggest break came in 1972 when the song “The First time Ever I Saw Your Face” was included in the 1972 film “Play Misty for Me.” The song topped the charts, as did the album “First Take” (originally released in 1969).
Roberta Flack - Feel Like Making Love (1974)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “Bridge Over Troubled Water (1971), “Spanish Harlem” (1971), “Rock Steady” (1971), “Day Dreaming” (1972), “Until You Come Back To Me” (1973)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Amazing Grace (1972)
Biggest Hit Overall: “Respect” (1967)
Best Selling Album Overall: “Amazing Grace” (1972)
Movies: “Blues Brothers (1980), “Blues Brothers 2000 (1998)
Trivia: With hits such as “Respect” (1967), “You Make Me Feel Like (A Natural Woman)” (1967), “Chain Of Fools” (1967), “Think” (1968) and others by 1969 Aretha Franklin acquired the “Queen of Soul” title and has held on to it ever since. As a child Aretha began as a Gospel singer in her father’s church. In 1960, age 18, she was signed to Columbia Records and achieved minor success. She placed nine songs on Billboard’s Top 100 from 1961 through 1966, as well as releasing nine albums, four of which made it onto Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. In 1967 she signed with Atlantic Records and immediately achieved success with the song “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” which reached #9 on the singles chart and #1 on the R&B chart. From there it was a string of non-stop hits through 1974. In the 1980’s she made a comeback with hits such as “Jump To It,” “Freeway Of Love,” “Who’s Zooming Who,” “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” (with Eurythmics). Aretha Franklin currently holds the distinction of ranking first among female vocalists with the most Billboard chart hits during the rock era (1955–2012) with a total of 88 according to Joel Whitburn's Record Research. Franklin has won an astonishing 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987 Aretha Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Aretha died on August 16, 2018 from a malignant pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor at the age of 76.
Aretha Franklin - Until You Come Back To Me (1973)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “Never Can Say Goodbye” (1974), “I Will Survive” (1978)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Love Tracks (1978)
Biggest Hit Overall: “I Will Survive” (1978)
Best Selling Album Overall: Love Tracks (1978)
Movies: “Pinay, American Style” (1980)
Trivia: Gloria Gaynor is best remembered for her mega-hit “I Will Survive.” Although, the song was almost not a hit, it was originally as the B-side to a song called "Substitute", which had recently been a worldwide hit for the South African girl-group Clout. Jack King a Disco Radio DJ in Boston, turned the record over and recalls being stunned by what he heard. "I couldn't believe they were burying this monster hit on the B-side", says King, "I played it and played it and my listeners went nuts!" Due to the huge audience response Polydor Records flipped the songs, so that subsequent copies of the single listed “I Will Survive” as the A-side and the song went on to become a #1 hit in the US, UK, Canada and Ireland as well as reaching the Top 10 in another 13 countries in the world. In the US the song was certified double platinum for selling more than 2 million copies.
Gloria Gaynor - I Will Survive (1979)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “Tell Me Something Good (1974), “Once You Get Started” (1975), “Sweet Thing” (1975), “I’m Every Woman” (1978)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Ask Rufus (1977)
Biggest Hit Overall: “I Feel for You” (1984)
Best Selling Album Overall: Ask Rufus (1977)
Movies: “The Blues Brothers” (1980), “Globehunters” (voice)(2000), “Revival!” (2015)
Trivia: Often called the “Queen Of Funk,” Chaka Khan has won ten Grammy Awards and has sold a combined total of 70 million albums worldwide (including those with the group Rufus). Chaka was the lead singer of the funk group Rufus from 1973 though 1978. It was the hit song “Tell Me Something Good” (written by Stevie Wonder) which brought Rufus to the forefront. By 1978 Chaka was becoming increasingly popular and a solo career had become evident for her. Her debut solo album was released in 1978 and included the smash hit “I’m Every Woman,” which was later recorded and released by Whitney Houston. Chaka’s biggest hit is 1984’s “I Feel For You,” written by Prince, the song was #1 on both the US and UK charts.
Rufus featuring Chaka Khan - Tell Me Something Good (1974)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “If I Were Your Woman (1970), “Neither One Of Us” (1973), “Midnight Train To Georgia” (1973), “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” (1973), “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” (1974), “On & On” (1974)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Imagination (1973)
Biggest Hit Overall: “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” (1974)
Best Selling Album Overall: “Imagination” (1973)
Movies: “Pipe Dreams” (1976), “Desperado” (1987), “Twenty Bucks” (1993), “Hollywood Homicide” (2003), “Unbeatable Harold” (2006), “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” (2009), “Seasons Of Love” (2015)
Trivia: At the age of seven, in 1952, Gladys won Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour TV show contest. The following year Gladys formed the group The Pips with her cousins and her brother. By 1961 they recorded their first single “Every Beat Of My Heart,” which made it to #6 on the US singles chart and was the start of a very long and successful career for Gladys. The bulk of her hit were made with her group Gladys Knight and The Pips. In 1987 Gladys recorded her final album with The Pips and she started a solo career. As a solo artist her career wasn’t as successful, though she managed to win four Grammy awards plus another three with The Pips, numbering a total of seven Grammys.
Gladys Knight & The Pips - Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me (1974)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1970), “Touch Me In The Morning” (1973), “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know where You’re going To)” (1975), “Love Hangover” (1976)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Diana Ross (1976)
Biggest Hit Overall: “Upside Down” (1980)
Best Selling Album Overall: Diana (1980)
Movies: “Lady Sings The Blues” (1972), “Mahogany” (1975), “The Wiz” (1978), “Out Of Darkness” (1994), “Double Platinum” (1999)
Trivia: At the age of 15 Diana Ross joined the Primettes who later were signed to Motown Records and changed their name to The Supremes (Diana Ross & The Supremes). The Supremes went on to achieve major success in the 1960’s with 12 #1 hits on the US charts. They became famous worldwide and are one of the world’s most successful groups of all-time. They paved the way for future African American R&B and soul acts to find mainstream success. Ross left the Supremes in 1970 and immediately pursued a solo career that was also hugely successful. As a solo artist Ross has had six #1 US hits making a total of eighteen US #1 hits with Diana Ross as the lead vocalist. Not many singers have enjoyed phenomenal success with two separate musical entities as Ross has. Along with music ross enjoyed a successful career as a big screen actress portraying Billie Holiday in 1972’s “The Lady Sings The Blues” and in 1975 she stars as a poor woman who rises to fame and fortune as a fashion designer in the film “Mahogany.” In 1978 she starred, with Michael Jackson, in the cult classic musical “The Wiz.” In 1993, The Guinness World Book of Records, named Diana Ross the world’s most successful female music artist in history for her combined successes from The Supremes and her solo work.
Diana Ross - Love Hangover (1976)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo (1978), “Identity” (1978), “Germ Free Adolescents” (1978)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Germ Free Adolescents (1978)
Biggest Hit Overall: “Germ Free Adolescents” (1978)
Best Selling Album Overall: “Germ Free Adolescents” (1978)
Trivia: All the other female vocalists in this blog post have been extremely successful with gold and platinum albums worldwide. Poly Styrene is the exception, but I included her in this article because I feel Poly Styrene is one of the 70’s most important black female vocalists. She is very underrated and her contribution to music should be acknowledged. Poly Styrene was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957 in the UK. Her mother alone raised her. As a teenager, Styrene was a hippie but also trained in opera. At age 15, she ran away from home with £3 in her pocket, and hitchhiked from one music festival to another, staying at hippie crash pads. Thinking of this as a challenge to survive, her adventure ended when she stepped on a rusty nail while bathing in a stream and had to be treated for inflammation caused by a whole body infection. In 1976 she decided to form the punk band XRay Spex by putting an ad in the newspaper which read, “young punx who want to stick it together to form a band.” After forming the band she settled on her stage name Poly Styrene, she chose the name from the Yellow Pages as she was looking for a name with something to do with plastic. She was described by Billboard as the "archetype for the modern-day feminist punk"; because she wore dental braces, stood against the typical sex object female of 1970s rock star, sported a gaudy Dayglo wardrobe, and was of mixed race. She was "one of the least conventional front-persons in rock history, male or female". Styrene’s lyrics mostly dealt with breaking the stereotypes that society has put on women. With her music Styrene inspired a generation of women to be strong and to fight small thinking. Styrene died April 25, 2011 at the age of 53. She had breast cancer which had spread to her spine and lungs.
XRay Spex - The Day The World Turned Dayglo (1978)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “Love To Love You Baby” (1975), “I Feel Love” (1977), “Last Dance” (1978), “MacArthur Park” (1978), “Heaven Knows” (1978), “Hot Stuff” (1979), “Bad Girls” (1979), “Dim All The Lights” (1979), “No More Tears (with Barbra Streisand)(1979), “On The Radio” (1979)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Bad Girls (1979)
Biggest Hit Overall: “Hot Stuff” (1979)
Best Selling Album Overall: Bad Girls (1979)
Movies: “Thank God It’s Friday” (1978)
Trivia: Donna Summer has reportedly sold more than 140 million albums worldwide, which puts in with in one of the most successful musicians of all-time. Her career started in Germany to play the part of Sheila in the musical Hair. She was only 17 when she moved to Germany. Soon Donna became fluent in the German language and performed in more musicals. In 1978, as Donna Gaines, she released her first single, a German rendition of the song “Aquarius.” With in the next few years a few more singles were recorded and released to the European market. Her first album, 1974’s “Lady Of The Night,” was recorded and released in Europe. The album was produced by Pete Bellotte and included songs written by Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder. She achieved minor success throughout Europe with the album. It wasn’t until her second album, 1975’s “Love To Love You Baby,” that Donna gained international hit status. The album ran to the top of the charts throughout the world and spawned to title track smash hit. The album was produced by the winning team of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and introduced an electronic sound, which was absent from her first album. Moroder & Bellotte produced Donna’s next five albums and all were huge hits throughout the world. Her career peak came with 1979’s “Bad Girls” album. With this album she began widening her musical scope tried her hand at country type ballads such as “On My Honour” and “There Will Always Be A You.” Most notably she included rock structures in her dance rhythms with heavy guitars and strong drums on songs such as “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.”. Due to her major worldwide success with disco music (in the 70’s) Donna has been given the title of “Queen of Disco.” In the 80’s she continued to explore other genres including new wave, country, Gospel, ballads and so forth. Sadly Donna passed away on May 17, 2012, aged 63, from lung cancer, possibly caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. In 2013 she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Donna Summer - Hot Stuff (1979)
Prominent Hits in the 70’s: “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” (1970), “Then Came You (with The Spinners)(1974), “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” (1979), “Deja Vu” (1979)
Best Selling Album of the 70’s: Dionne (1979)
Biggest Hit Overall: “That’s What Friends Are For” (1985)
Best Selling Album Overall: Dionne (1979)
Movies: “Slaves” (1969), “Rent-A-Cop” (1991)
Trivia: Dionne Warwick is one of the most successful pop singers on the Billboard US singles chart. She has placed 66 singles in the Top 100 singles chart, tying her in third place with Madonna for female with the most Top 100 singles in the US. Warwick comes from a family of singers. Her mother, aunts and uncles were members of the Drinkard Singers, a renowned family gospel group. Dionne’s aunt is the famed Cissy Houston (born Emily Drinkard) is mother to the late and great Whitney Houston. Dionne Warwick is Whitney’s cousin. Opera singer Leontyne Price is a second cousin to Dionne. Warwick’s first success came in 1962 when she was signed to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s production company and soon after began recording for Scepter Records. Throughout the 1960’s Warwick had hits with several Bacharach/David tunes including “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Walk On By,” “Message To Michael,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” “This Girl’s In Love With You” and several others. By 1970 the hits were less frequent for Warwick and it wasn’t until 1974 that she saw another hit with the chart-topping “Then Came You” with The Spinners. But this was a short lived come back. Finally in 1979 Warwick made a long lasting comeback with the release of her album “Dionne,” the album was produced by Barry Manilow and contains the hits “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” “Déjà vu,” and “After You.” The hits continued for Warwick through 1987 with her crowning achievement being the 1985 collaboration “That’s What Friends Are For.” The song was written by Burt Bacaharach and Carole Bayer Sager and raised $3 million for The American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Dionne Warwick - I'll Never Love This Way Again (1979)