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To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought it would be good to take a look at some of the women who have shaped and influenced the music we listen to and sing today. There isn't room to go into a detailed story for each woman; instead I have highlighted why it is that they are considered to be such key figures in the development of modern music and then signposted you to more complete biographies if you wish to find out more. There are also links to some of their recordings.

A second blog will follow, dealing with women who made their mark in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century

Bessie Smith – (1894 – 1937) ‘The Empress of the Blues

Bessie Smith, the most famous blues singer of the 1920s, was a major influence for countless female vocalists — including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. She used her powerful contralto voice to reflect her personal experience of extreme poverty, oppression, cruelty and unrequited love in her music. For a good example, listen to ‘Downhearted Blues.’

The lyrics of her songs often challenged accepted social norms, urging women to develop greater independence, to use drink as way to cope with the drudgery of their daily lives and to be open about their sexual needs.

It was often said that Bessie Smith sang the life she lived. You can find out more about that life here:

Billie Holiday (nee Eleanora Fagan)– 1915-1949 ‘Lady Day’

Despite a turbulent childhood, (by the time she was 14, she had been to reform school, worked in a brothel, been sent to prison and to the workhouse), Billie Holiday built a career as one the greatest & most influential jazz vocalists of all time, before tragically losing it all to her battle with heroin addiction.

Unlike Bessie Smith, Billie did not have a powerful voice, but she was admired for her distinctive phrasing and her ability to convey emotion, be it in a love song like ‘The Man I Love’ or in the haunting, politically-charged song, ‘Strange Fruit.’

Find out more about Billie here.:

Ella Fitzgerald (1917- 1996) ‘The First Lady of Jazz’

Ella Fitzgerald’s honeyed voice, wide range and inventive vocal improvisations made her the most popular female jazz singer of her generation, with a career that spanned 6 decades..

After winning an amateur contest, she started out singing & recording mostly novelty songs, like "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," which became in big hit in the late 1930’s.

However, as be-bop became more popular in the early 1940s, she began to use her voice to imitate the sound of the band’s instruments, a technique which she later developed with such amazing skill that she became known at ‘The Queen of Scat.’ The reason is clear in this recording of ‘Flying Home.’

Later still, her series of 19 landmark "Songbook" albums, in which she interpreted outstanding songs by the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin & Irving Berlin, brought her popularity amongst a wider, non-jazz audience. Here she sings Cole Porter's 'Let's Do It.'

As well as making history in 1958 as the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award - she won 14 of them eventually – Ella sold over 40 million albums, making her more than worthy of the title, "First Lady of Song."

Find out more about Ella here:

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