The sheer fact that we’re able to compile a list of the most influential female rockers indicates just how underrepresented women are in the music industry. If we created a list of the most influential male rockers through the decades, it would have to be a book instead of a succinct article. There are many hurdles that women have to jump through to make it in the music business, and that was especially true in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, and even more so for women of color. As we enter Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at some of the women who defied the odds, changing the landscape of rock for years to follow.
Excerpted from Steve Morse’s Berklee Online course Rock History, this list chronicles some of the most influential females up to the turn of the century.
You will find links to the music of most of these artists in the article, but we also recommend checking out our playlist.
Early Rockers of the 1950s
1. Wanda Jackson
Early rocker Wanda Jackson had a robust career. She shared the stage with Elvis Presley in the mid-’50s and became known as the Queen of Rockabilly. Like many of her male counterparts, she was originally a country western artist who crossed over to rock ‘n’ roll. She continued to perform throughout her life, and at age 73 released a 2011 album with Jack White of the White Stripes. In 2012, she released yet another album, Unfinished Business.
2. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sometimes called “the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the daughter of two cotton pickers who were also singers. She came out of a gospel background in Arkansas and began rocking early: her 1945 song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” was the first gospel record to cross over to Billboard’s “race chart,” later renamed the R&B chart. She was Little Richard’s favorite singer when he was a child—and she asked Richard to join her onstage in Macon, GA. It was his first public show outside of church. She even paid him for it and that helped inspire him to become a performer.
She sang in churches and nightclubs and was the rare woman to play electric guitar onstage. She blended gospel and folk licks with a jumped-up swing rhythm that anticipated rock ‘n’ roll. She toured England with Muddy Waters as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan in 1963, which brought her to the attention of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 as an Early Influence.
3. Ruth Brown
Ruth Brown was an R&B singer who was born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1928. When she was a teenager, her friends pooled their money and sent her to New York to a talent contest at the Apollo Theater where she came in first place. Before finding her own voice, she patterned her sound and stage act after jazz singer Billie Holiday. Brown easily crossed over to rock ‘n’ roll and recorded such hits as the No. 1 record “5-10-15 Hours,” and her early hits helped to establish Atlantic Records as a force to be reckoned with in the music business. Singer Bonnie Raitt has acknowledged Brown as a major influence.
In the 1980s while pursuing a struggling acting career, Ruth, along with her lawyer and Reverend Jesse Jackson, petitioned Atlantic Records to forgive the $30,000 she supposedly owed the label for receiving advance money during her heyday as a singer. Together they persuaded Atlantic to forgive her debts and she ended up receiving $20,000 in back pay from the label. Most importantly, because of her actions, the royalty payments system at Atlantic and other labels was reformed and many R&B artists of her generation benefited from her activism. Also, Atlantic contributed $1.5 million to start the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to help needy entertainers.
4. LaVern Baker
LaVern Baker (born 1929) was another R&B singer signed to Atlantic who crossed over to rock ‘n’ roll. She began singing in the clubs of Chicago. Her powerful voice fueled hits such as “See See Rider,” which you can hear on the embedded playlist. After her peak years, Baker took a job managing an officer’s club in the Philippines for the US military from 1969 to 1991.
In 1955, LaVern Baker had a hit with “Tweedle Dee,” which was copied by Mercury Records (a label that was itself become a major label in the same league as the big three) and released by pop artist Georgia Gibbs. The record mimicked the arrangement of the Baker record, and they even employed some of the same musicians that played on the Atlantic side. Baker spearheaded a growing opposition movement against this copycat practice and petitioned Congress to establish a law to prevent the labels from issuing this type of record. Although the law didn’t pass, LaVern Baker was one of the first of a growing list artists to apply pressure on the labels to discontinue this practice.
Girl Groups of the Early 1960s
5. The Shirelles
The Shirelles were high school friends from Passaic, New Jersey. They were unusual because they wrote a lot of their own songs, though they made history for being the first all-girl group to have a No. 1 hit in the rock era (1961), “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” written by the Brill Building team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Among rock fans, the Shirelles are perhaps best known for singing “Baby It’s You” (a No. 8 hit on the pop charts) and “Boys,” both of which were covered by the Beatles on their first UK album, Please Please Me, in 1963.
6. The Ronettes
Listen to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (produced by Phil Spector), a mega-hit in 1963 and featuring future star Cher on backup vocals in her first studio appearance. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys has called this a perfect record and its influence can be heard on the Beach Boys’ Spector-influenced productions. The Ronettes were a family act (two sisters and a cousin) out of New York, starring Ronnie Spector, who became Phil’s wife. They had an ill-fated marriage, though, and the eccentric Spector was so paranoid that he kept his young wife as a virtual prisoner and curtailed her ability to record.
In 1990, Ronnie Spector published a critically acclaimed book about her life as a Ronette and her four-year marriage with Phil Spector, titled Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness. Ronnie Spector reflected on her time with Spector:
My marriage to my ex [Phil Spector]. It was horrible. Nightmarish. Couldn’t go out, I didn’t have keys. If I went outside, I couldn’t get back in. Barbed wire. It was like a little prison. And I was a prisoner. And I hated it because I wasn’t performing. I lived to perform since I was 11 years old. So I couldn’t do that. What a mistake. Because that was a person that I thought would carry me on.
Phil Spector’s musical path—as well as his destructive path—ended with a 2009 conviction of murder in the second degree in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson in his Alhambra, California home. He was serving a 19-year prison sentence when he died at the age of 81 of COVID-19 complications on January 16, 2021.
The Ronettes opened for the Beatles in 1966 and Keith Richards inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. The Ronettes were the most popular girl group before Motown’s Supremes. Ronnie Spector passed away from cancer at the age of 78 in 2022.
1960s Soul Sisters
7. Tina Turner
Tina Turner is considered the gold standard for female rock singers. She met future husband Ike Turner in St. Louis. She joined him onstage as an amateur and he was smart enough to hire her. No one said Ike was musically stupid (he played on what some consider the first rock record in 1951, “Rocket 88”), but his spousal abuse of Tina, as cited in her 1986 memoir, I, Tina, has rightfully tarnished his legacy. In the mid-’60s, though, the Ike & Tina Revue were formidable, winning opening slots on two Rolling Stones tours of the US in 1966 and 1969, and scoring a major hit in “River Deep, Mountain High” (1966), thanks to Tina’s rafter-raising pipes. The song was produced by Phil Spector, who actually paid Ike to not be on the record. Ike & Tina had another big hit in 1971, with a remake of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.”
Their last big hit was “Nutbush City Limits” in 1973. It was written by Tina, and served as a portent of her coming independence. The duo ended in 1976, when a fed-up Tina ran away from Ike at a Dallas hotel with only 36 cents and a gas station credit card in her pocket. As Tina said, “Ike was totally dominating. Everything was done when he wanted and how he wanted. Once I got onstage that was my outlet, that was my freedom.”
One of the most remarkable comebacks in rock history occurred when Tina released Private Dancer in 1984. The album sold 11 million copies boosted by its hits “Let’s Stay Together” (a cover of an Al Green song), “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” “Better Be Good to Me,” and “Private Dancer,” penned by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Tina also became a hotter-than-ever live act who played arenas and amphitheaters and was carried over the crowd in a cherry-picker, much as Mick Jagger used to do with the Stones.
8. Aretha Franklin
Tina Turner may have been known as the “Queen of Rock n Roll,” but Aretha Franklin held court as the undisputed “Queen of Soul.” She earned it, with an overpowering fusion of gospel, R&B, jazz, and pop. She is ranked at the very top of Rolling Stone’s list of “The Greatest Singers of All Time” and was the first female inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She grew up in Detroit, where her dad was a nationally known gospel singer and also a minister at the large, 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church. Aretha, however, had her share of tragedies. Her mother left the family when she was six, and her father was shot by burglars in 1979, which caused him to fall into a coma and die. Still, no one could sing like Aretha. Her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was a No. 1 hit in 1967, driven by an ad-libbed vocal performance and a gospel-like fervor in the call-and-response between Aretha (singing “R-e-s-p-e-c-t, find out what it means to me”) and her sisters Erma and Carolyn answering with “Sock it to me.”
Aretha started recording gospel for the Checker label at age 14. She later signed with Mitch Miller at Columbia (an anti-rock curmudgeon who tried unsuccessfully to turn her toward a pop-jazz path). But her career took off when she signed with Atlantic Records, where producer Jerry Wexler turned her loose on the more R&B-centered “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” (penned by Carole King) and “Chain of Fools.”
9. Janis Joplin
Known as a “blues mama,” Joplin had almost no equal for belting the blues. She hailed from the oil refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas, the daughter of a Texaco engineer. She lived an alienated childhood. Fond of beat poets, she read “Jack Kerouac and all those other dope-smoking degenerates,” as she put it. She thus decided to become a beatnik and move to San Francisco. She didn’t fit into Texas, where at the University of Texas in Austin she was even voted “Ugliest Man on Campus.” But she would have the last laugh.
Janis sang in folk and blues bars on the West Coast, and later played all-night parties for the Hells Angels at Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. She had been influenced vocally by Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Big Mama Thornton, but she brought an unchained, hard-rock energy to the scene, swigging her patented Southern Comfort whiskey onstage.
She loved the stage and a peer of hers noted, “The hard drinking, the drugs—those were just fill-ins to keep away the threat of boredom for the times she wasn’t performing.” She died alone in a LA hotel room in 1970 of a heroin overdose, after playing a final concert at Harvard Stadium, of all places. Her legacy was boosted by a hit cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” which came out right after she died and went to No. 1.
10. Carole King
This former Brill Building tunesmith co-wrote two dozen charts hits in the ’60s, including the aforementioned “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles and “Up on the Roof” for the Drifters. But her best was yet to come. Carole King broke out as a female singer/songwriter icon with her empowering Tapestry album in 1971, which continued to be the best-selling female record until Alanis Morissette came along in the ’90s. Tapestry has sold 25 million copies worldwide and was the top-selling album of all genres until Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the ’80s. It featured the bittersweet, wrenchingly emotional No. 1 hit, “It’s Too Late,” and the dreamy piano ballad “So Far Away,” another hit. But it wasn’t just an adult contemporary record. It had some rock in the songs “Smackwater Jack’” and the funky “I Feel the Earth Move.”
11. Carly Simon
Carly Simon had a privileged upbringing as the daughter of Manhattan book publishing magnate Richard Simon, co-founder of Simon & Schuster. After playing in New York clubs in a folk duo with her sister Lucy, she debuted with a self-titled album in 1971. She became an immediate soft-rock darling with the hit ballad “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” which was a feminist statement that questioned traditional marriage. Simon really took off with the hit “You’re So Vain” in 1972, which pilloried a jet-set lifestyle of a self-indulgent lover who had a racehorse and a Lear jet. “You had me several years ago when I was quite naive,” she sang, as the media went crazy speculating whether it was about Stones singer Mick Jagger or actor Warren Beatty. Simon never said who it was. This type of mystery would emerge again a couple decades later as people tried to figure out who Alanis was singing about in “You Oughta Know.”
Simon also wrote the sexually tense but melodically breezy “Anticipation,” which was written about waiting for a date with singer Cat Stevens, who was late to arrive. Later, Simon had a series of soundtrack hits—such as “Nobody Does It Better” (from the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me) and “Let the River Run” from Working Girl. She suffered from stage fright and collapsed onstage in 1980, after which she diversified her career into writing children’s books and appearing on two Grammy-winning Sesame Street records. (She did tour successfully in the ’90s.) It is also worth noting that she also became part of folk-rock royalty by marrying James Taylor in 1972 and having a son and daughter with him before they parted in the ’80s.
12. Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell will forever be enshrined in rock history for writing “Woodstock,” the tribute song to the festival that was covered in a hit version by Crosby, Stills & Nash. It was strange because Mitchell didn’t actually attend Woodstock (she was preparing for a TV appearance), but she picked up on the event’s vibe better than anyone. She dated Graham Nash (but refused to marry him), then was involved with James Taylor for a while before Carly Simon swooped in and took him off the market.
Mitchell grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and had polio at age 9. Her self-titled debut album in 1968 was co-produced by David Crosby (and had “Both Sides Now”). It set the tone of Joni producing or co-producing each of her albums. She also kept control of her master recordings and publishing rights. She always empowered herself and became an icon for that alone. She was a bohemian artist, but took care of business.
Joni moved to Toronto, then Detroit, then LA by the late ’60s. Her songs, “The Circle Game” and “Urge for Going” were both popularized by Tom Rush; and Judy Collins scored with a hit of her “Both Sides Now.” Her big breakthrough was 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon album with “Woodstock” and the hit “Big Yellow Taxi,” with the famous line, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” which environmentalists have quoted ever since. Serious Mitchell lovers cite her best work as the Blue album in 1971, a confessional, singer/songwriter record that heavily influenced generations of artists.
Late 1970s Mainstream Rock
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, who came from the Seattle/Vancouver area and were daughters of a Marine Corps captain, bucked the male tide to break through with the songs “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man” in 1976. “The fact that our group is led by women has certainly helped us. It has opened doors for us but there are so few female rockers that we’re a novelty,” said Ann. There would be more female rockers during the coming punk years, but it’s a sad fact that rock radio has mostly been controlled by men through the years. Women have had a much better chance on Top 40 radio stations.
Heart was soon victimized by their macho-dominated label, Mushroom Records, which in 1977 sent a controversial ad (the Wilson sisters weren’t told about it) to trade publications implying they were lesbians. It showed them huddled together looking sexy, with the caption, “It was only our first time!” Ann hit the roof and went back to her hotel after a concert to write a scathing reply in the aggressive song “Barracuda,” which became a hit.
14. Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac started as a hard-driving, macho blues-rock band in the ’60s with the triple guitars of Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, and Jeremy Spencer. That said, the only UK No. 1 hit that Fleetwood Mac ever had was during this era, and it was a serene instrumental called “Albatross.” But the only remaining members by the mid-’70s were the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. The transition was first made from blues to pop in the early ’70s with the arrival of pianist Christine McVie (she was initially booed at concerts by the blues-rock-loving side of their fans), then went even deeper with the coming of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks for 1975’s self-titled Fleetwood Mac album. It flashed a pronounced feminine streak in its four hit singles—two by Nicks (“Rhiannon” and “Landslide”) and two by Christine (“Say You Love Me” and “Over My Head.”)
But then the group became a soap opera in 1976 with the divorce of Christine and John McVie, the separation of Buckingham and Nicks (who had also been romantically involved) and the divorce of Mick from his wife, Jenny (who was the sister of Patti Boyd, the muse who married both George Harrison and Eric Clapton.) Oh, and Mick ended up sleeping briefly with Nicks, which he confessed in his later memoir, Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac.
As you can see, the tabloids were kept busy, but the tensions were all poured into the Mac’s Rumours album of 1977. The album was one of the best-selling in history, staying at No. 1 on the charts for 31 weeks and in the Top 5 for a year—the longest run of any album in the ’70s. It was laced with hits, including Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” and “Second Hand News,” the bittersweet “I Don’t Wanna Know,” and Christine’s rare ray of sunshine, “Don’t Stop.”
However, the Mac became too self-indulgent with the Rumours follow-up, the double-album Tusk, in 1979. It was the first album in rock history to top more than $1 million of studio time. They’ve made albums off and on ever since, but never with the same intensity. Various members have also made solo albums, the most conspicuous by far being Nicks’ Bella Donna in 1981, which had three major hits, including two duets—“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Tom Petty and “Leather and Lace” with the Eagles’ Don Henley. In the second decade of the 2000s, the Fleetwood Mac song, “Dreams” became an international sensation again when a man skateboarding and drinking cranberry juice lip-synced to it on the TikTok app and shot the song back to No. 2 on the charts.
Late 1970s Punk
15. Patti Smith
The Patti Smith Group put female punk on the map. It has been argued that her double-sided single of “Hey Joe” and “Piss Factory” from 1974 was the first punk single ever. It was a caustic, spoken-word memory of her days inspecting pipes in a New Jersey factory where women got abused and were underpaid.
Smith grew up in New Jersey as part of a blue-collar family, then moved to Manhattan to be a poet. She first published her poems in Creem magazine in 1971. She also lived with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea Hotel, which she recalled in her best-selling memoir, Just Kids, which won the National Book Award in 2010. Mapplethorpe would later photograph her album covers. By 1974, she was reading her poems around town with backing from guitarist Lenny Kaye, who would anchor her band when it started at CBGB’s in 1975.
Smith had a sense of primitivism and provocation that made her extremely controversial. She recorded Van Morrison’s rock classic “Gloria,” but made it her own with the caustic line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” Her debut album, Horses (1976) was produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground.
Blondie was fronted by singer Deborah Harry, a blond bombshell who fit right into the coming video age. They named the group after taunts she received on the street. She had been a Playboy bunny and a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, another New York club that favored alternative music. She grew up in New Jersey and was in a folk group called Wind in the Willows for a while in the 1960s. She hooked up with guitarist/boyfriend Chris Stein and they recruited drummer Clem Burke and organist Jimmy Destri (it was unusual to have an organist in a so-called punk band). They started playing at CBGB’s in 1975 and by 1977 they were opening a national tour for Iggy Pop. They didn’t have a great reputation as a live band, but they had adventurous, boundary-crossing tastes in music that would make them the most commercially successful group in the punk movement.
They eventually had four No. 1 hits, starting with the disco-influenced “Heart of Glass.” Destri introduced a synthesizer on it. They then flicked the switch to a reggae sound for “The Tide Is High,” a No. 1 hit in 1980, the same year they had another No. 1, “Call Me,” the theme song for the movie American Gigolo. The producer was Giorgio Moroder, who also produced hits for disco-pop diva Donna Summer. Their fourth No. 1 was “Rapture,” a rap-style tune whose music video was the first rap video broadcast on MTV (which debuted in 1981).
Blondie were also very good at straight ahead rock, witness another hit, “One Way or Another,” a sharp-edged song in which Harry flashed a tough, dominant, punk side. And the band became even bigger in the UK than the US. Two of their albums, Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat, went to No. 1 overseas but not in America. Blondie might have sustained their growth but they broke up partly because Chris Stein developed a rare autoimmune disease of the skin and had to be hospitalized for months. And Harry was at his side constantly. They reformed in 1999 for the No Exit album and did a well-received national tour.
17. The B-52’s
Their music might have been called new wave, but the B-52’s had a retro, early ’60s fashion look with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson in miniskirts, go-go boots, and bouffant hairdos. As Sounds magazine wrote, Cindy had “a pink bouffant so high you could use it to sweep the ceiling in most houses.” Even their name was taken from a Southern term for a bouffant hairstyle. People laughed at them, but the B-52’s became a party band that everyone wanted to see. They had started by jamming at a house party in Athens, GA and they sang to tapes because they weren’t yet proficient on instruments. And when they did get it together, their first paid gig was at Max’s Kansas City, a Manhattan club where they made just $17.
Better times lay ahead, though, when they released the irresistible hit “Rock Lobster” in 1979. It was an absurdist track about a supposed underwater rock lobster: “Somebody went under a dock / And there they saw a rock / It wasn’t a rock / It was a rock lobster.” The silliness caught on and made the song a gigantic dance-club hit. Legend has it that hearing the song prompted John Lennon to want to make music again after a long dormant period in the 1970s.
The group, which also featured the toy piano and manic vocals of Fred Schneider, went through some ups and downs, and had to recover from guitarist Ricky Wilson (Cindy’s brother) dying of AIDS in 1985. They took a while to recuperate from that, but returned with one last hit, “Love Shack,” in 1989, another festive song in the B-52’s tradition.
18. The Go-Go’s
The Go-Go’s were at first viewed as a punk novelty act but surprised many by developing into a true musical force. They formed in Hollywood in 1978 and were fronted by a former cheerleader, Belinda Carlisle. They enlisted some solid players, including drummer Gina Schock, and had a versatile songwriter in Jane Wiedlin, and the band eventually became the first all-female band to top the Billboard charts (as opposed to an all-female singing group like the Supremes). Their 1981 debut disc, Beauty and the Beat, was produced by Richard Gottehrer and Rob Freeman, who had both worked on Blondie’s first album. The sound was free and easy—and make no mistake, this band rocked, sometimes with a surf-rock edge with driving vocal harmonies.
The first album had the hits “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat”—songs that are almost impossible to hear without cracking a smile. So is “Vacation,” their hedonistic 1982 hit. Unfortunately, the Go-Go’s got up and went in 1984. They reunited five years later, but never repeated their initial whirl of success. Their 2020 documentary on Showtime is a stellar watch.
19. The Pretenders
The Pretenders were fronted by Chrissie Hynde, who moved to England from her native Akron, Ohio and became a rock critic for the magazine NME before turning performer. (Her 1974 feature on Brian Eno is one of the wildest stories in classic rock journalism! See it archived here!) She had also worked in Malcolm McLaren’s London clothing shop, SEX, where the Sex Pistols were hatched. Hynde was from a more traditional hard-rock mold—witness the galvanizing Pretenders and Pretenders II albums from the early ’80s.
Their first US hit, “Brass in Pocket,” was a tour de force by the sultry Hynde, who sang with chilly eroticism and whip-smart confidence:
Hynde arrived boldly and stayed that way, though the band didn’t. Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of a heroin overdose in 1982, and bassist Pete Farndon died of a drug overdose the following year, though he had already been kicked out of the band. But Hynde always fought through it, with the help of anchoring drummer Martin Chambers, a powerful player who had his own tempestuous side, having to cancel a tour once because he broke his hand while punching out a lamp in frustration.
Hynde had a daughter in 1983 with Ray Davies of The Kinks whose song “Stop Your Sobbing” the Pretenders covered brilliantly on their debut.
Eurythmics were the most fascinating of the new synth-pop breed. They consisted of singer Annie Lennox (from Aberdeen, Scotland) and instrumentalist Dave Stewart (from northern England.) They had been in a band called the Tourists, who rank with the most unappreciated rock bands of all time—their 1980 album, Luminous Basement, was an absolute gem and reminiscent of the psychedelic guitar-rock of Jefferson Airplane. Lennox and Stewart were lovers at the time, but that ended with the formation of Eurythmics. As Lennox said, “Most couples get famous and then break up. But we broke up and then got famous. Our first reaction was that it was impossible to break up and still make music together. But the experience made us stronger.”
Indeed it did on their 1983 album Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), whose title track was a global hit though it was made in Stewart’s very humble, revamped warehouse attic studio. Stewart had switched from guitar to synths and drum machines for its basic dance-pop sound, while Lennox was an electrifying, gender-bending presence.
21. Donna Summer
Donna Summer had a huge career, but was perhaps unfairly typecast. She was known as the “Queen of Disco” but was bursting with talent that ran the gamut from gospel to rock. Born in Boston as one of seven kids, Summer was a child prodigy who performed at the Boston rock club the Psychedelic Supermarket when she was 17, then moved to Munich, Germany where she starred in the hippie musical Hair at age 18. That’s where she hooked up with electro-pop producer Giorgio Moroder, who steered her in a disco direction along with his label, Casablanca Records. Some of her late ’70s disco hits had a rock flavor (including “Hot Stuff,” a No. 1 hit in 1979), but that rock energy mushroomed in the ’80s when she sought to get away from being typecast as a disco diva. The apex came on the driving “She Works Hard for the Money,” a No. 3 hit in 1983. Check out some of her other diverse offerings on this article’s accompanying playlist.
Summer has been overlooked by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but after her death in 2012, the nominating committee chairman, Jon Landau, told Billboard that “the voters have failed” by not getting her in and he hoped to remedy that in the future. (She made it into the Hall the next year, in 2013.) Billboard also noted that other members of the Hall of Fame have dabbled in disco during their careers, citing Rod Stewart (“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”), the Jacksons, and the Rolling Stones (“Miss You.”) Check out the interview with Donna’s widower, Bruce Sudano, on the Music Is My Life podcast.
What can you say about Madonna? Try this from Rolling Stone’s Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll:
Madonna is the most media-savvy American pop star since Bob Dylan and the most consistently controversial one since Elvis Presley. Many people saw her as more dance-pop than rock, hence more controversy occurred when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. Legitimate rock bands like Deep Purple, Rush, and Yes haven’t been inducted, so the purists were not happy with the Madonna choice.
Madonna came from Detroit—real name Madonna Louise Ciccone—and she had to learn independence early because her mother died when she was six years old. She studied dance, and that has always been a large part of her concerts and videos. She used MTV to the utmost, jumping onboard in 1983, notably with the song “Borderline,” which had a video about interracial love. But that year she also released a video of “Lucky Star,” where the camera got up close and personal with her navel. Using videos as a tease became her specialty. She followed those with her 1984 album Like a Virgin, whose teasing title track went to No. 1. She also hit with the more cold, aloof “Material Girl.” The hits helped the Like a Virgin album (produced by Nile Rodgers, who produced Bowie’s comeback album Let’s Dance the year before) to sell 10 million copies. She continues to make viable music (and provocative Instagram posts) into her fifth decade.
23. Alanis Morissette
Alanis Morissette arrived with a bang. Her Jagged Little Pill album, released in 1995, sold 28 million copies worldwide in the first few years, becoming the all-time, best-selling female rock album. She had been a teeny-bop singer in her native Canada as an early teen, but then suffered a romantic breakup and started writing very adult (and very angry) songs in the aftermath. She was still only 19 when she moved to Los Angeles and worked with famed producer Glen Ballard. They hit it off and he describes a nearly 24/7 burst of creativity in which they “channeled” Alanis’ anger and together wrote and recorded an amazing 11 songs in 11 days for Jagged Little Pill. It came out on Maverick Records, which was owned by Madonna.
The hits kept coming from the album’s palette of aggressive, confessional pop-rock—“Hand in My Pocket,” “Ironic,” “All I Really Want,” and “You Learn.” But the most emphatic was the snarling, ranting “You Oughta Know,” which really caught a national mood of how some women felt after being rejected.
24. Melissa Etheridge
Say hello to a former Berklee student. The hard-belting but warm-hearted Etheridge, who was strongly influenced by Janis Joplin, grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas. She played in bands as a teen, then attended Berklee (singing cover songs in a restaurant near the campus), then moved to Los Angeles. She signed with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records and issued a juggernaut of records that made her an arena headliner after 1993’s Yes I Am. That disc was produced by Hugh Padgham, who had worked with the Police and Phil Collins. It contained the emotionally compelling, dramatically sung (Etheridge didn’t know any other way) Top 10 hits “Come to My Window” and “I’m the Only One,” plus a Top 20 hit, “If I Wanted To.”
She also came out that year and declared she was a lesbian, but it didn’t affect her sales and showed that rock audiences were more open than they might have been decades before. Her lover, Julie Cypher, eventually gave birth to a girl and a boy, and it was revealed the donor (through artificial insemination) was David Crosby of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The tabloids had a field day with that news, but Crosby was quite proud of it. Etheridge’s run on the charts continued with 1995’s Your Little Secret album, which had two more heart-tugging Top 40 hits in “I Want to Come Over” and “Nowhere to Go.”
25. Sinead O’Connor
Dublin native Sinead O’Connor crashed onto the scene with an unusual look (her shaved head,) but with an exquisitely sensuous voice that made her an overnight star on her I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got album in 1990. It had the hits “Nothing Compares 2 U” (a ballad written by Prince that became one of the fastest-selling singles in history,) “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.” But her traits as a provocateur constantly stirred controversy, as when she ripped up a picture of the Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992. She sang an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” but changed the word “racism” to “child abuse” as a protest against allegations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. She then pulled out a picture of Pope John Paul II, said “Fight the real enemy” and ripped it up. She was attacked in the press after that. But really, everything Sinead O’Connor did was rock ‘n’ roll, especially with the perspective that the passage of time allows. And if you need any further proof of Sinead’s influence, witness Phoebe Bridgers’ faithful—but not disappointing—cover of “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a song which is unfortunately just as poignant now as it was the day the original was written.