Edited by Gerald Boerner



JerryPhoto_thumb2_thumb_thumb_thumb_[2]_thumbToday we look at another six African American women musicians who have made major contributions to the entertainment scene of the 20th century. Many of these individuals are still alive and continue to work for the improvement of the status and experience of Blacks, both in the United States and abroad. Many of these works help to fight for the rights of the Black people in this country from slavery to freedom. Many of them have also participated in both the freedom struggles against the forces of bias, segregation, and relegation to second-class status; the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the legislation of the Great Society have given many of these women the opportunity to serve their people. These women continue to fight for the rich heritage of the African Americans.


This is the third of a four part series that celebrates lives and contributions of these musicians. It is, by necessity, a long document, but it details the lives and representative work of these very talented individuals.

Let us celebrate the lives and works of these women who used their musical talents for the cause of the African American people and the Civil Rights movement. We now will proceed to examine the lives and works of these African American Women in more detail... GLB

These Introductory Comments are copyrighted:
Copyright©2012 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved

[ 4110 Words ]


Quotations Related to Milestones in History — Musicians:

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“The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”
— Duke Ellington

“I went through all the musicians in my life who I admire as bright, intelligent, virtuosic players.”
— David Bowie

“A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians.”
— Frank Zappa

“The world must be filled with unsuccessful musical careers like mine, and it’s probably a good thing. We don’t need a lot of bad musicians filling the air with unnecessary sounds. Some of the professionals are bad enough.”
— Andy Rooney

“Those little nimble musicians of the air, that warble forth their curious ditties, with which nature hath furnished them to the shame of art.”
— Izaak Walton

“When we came into the studio I became more and more me, making the tracks and choosing the musicians, partly because a great deal of the time during Bridge, Artie wasn’t there.”
— Paul Simon

“But, I would be naive not to recognize the number of musicians who tell me they have been influenced by me and sight me – as well as Alex and Neil – as a musician who has been a positive influence on their playing.”
— Geddy Lee

“I talked to ex-wives of musicians of the ’70s for research. They’re the funniest people in the world, yet there is this sad, beautiful thing in their eyes that says they’ve seen more than they could ever possibly tell you.”
— Kate Hudson


Milestones — Unsung Heroes of Black History: Black Women Musicians, Part 3…


Harlem-Renaissance-Graphic_thumb2_thumbThe Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. Though it was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, many French-speaking black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.

Historians disagree as to when the Harlem Renaissance began and ended. The Harlem Renaissance is unofficially recognized to have spanned from about 1919 until the early or mid 1930s. Many of its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature", as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, was placed between 1924 (the year that Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 (the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression).

A new way of playing the piano called the Harlem Stride Style was created during the Harlem Renaissance, and helped blur the lines between the poor Negros and socially elite Negros. The traditional jazz band was composed primarily of brass instruments and was considered a symbol of the south, but the piano was considered an instrument of the wealthy. With this instrumental modification to the existing genre, the wealthy blacks now had more access to jazz music. Its popularity soon spread throughout the country and was consequently at an “all time high.” Innovation and liveliness were important characteristics of performers in the beginnings of jazz. Jazz musicians at the time like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Willie "The Lion" Smith were very talented and competitive, and were considered to have laid the foundation for future musicians of their genre.

During this time period, the musical style of blacks was becoming more and more attractive to whites. White novelists, dramatists and composers started to exploit the musical tendencies and themes of African-American in their works. Composers used poems written by African American poets in their songs, and would implement the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of African-American music—such as blues, spirituals, and jazz—into their concert pieces. Negros began to merge with Whites into the classical world of musical composition. The first Negro male to gain wide recognition as a concert artist in both his region and internationally was Roland Hayes. He trained with Arthur Calhoun in Chattanooga, and at Fisk University in Nashville. Later, he studied with Arthur Hubbard in Boston and with George Henshel and Amanda Ira Aldridge in London, England. He began singing in public as a student, and toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911.

*** Our focus here is upon the unsung heroes of this African American experience as they have contributed to the Arts and Literature over the last two hundred years or so. Today, we focus upon those Black Women who have made significant contributions as musicians — singers, song writers, and opera performers. Typically, their contributions have been ignored in favor of the contributions of their male counterparts, such as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, "The Lion" Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton. But the dozen women that we feature here have made significant contributions to the body of American Musical scene. For that contribution, we salute them. (Part 3 of 4)



History Channel’s Unsung Heroes:
Black Women Musicians (Part 3)

The Supremes (1959-1977)

The Supremes, L-R: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, performing in London in 1965. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis)

Dianna Ross and the-supremesThe Supremes
, an American female singing group, were the premier act of Motown Records during the 1960s.

Originally founded as The Primettes in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959, The Supremes’ repertoire included doo-wop, pop, soul, Broadway show tunes, psychedelic soul, and disco. They were the most commercially successful of Motown’s acts and are, to date, America’s most successful vocal group with 12 number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Most of these hits were written and produced by Motown’s main songwriting and production team, Holland–Dozier–Holland. At their peak in the mid-1960s, The Supremes rivaled The Beatles in worldwide popularity, and their success made it possible for future African American R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream success.

Founding members Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Betty McGlown, all from the Brewster-Douglass public housing project in Detroit, formed The Primettes as the sister act to The Primes (with Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who went on to form The Temptations). Barbara Martin replaced McGlown in 1960, and the group signed with Motown the following year as The Supremes. Martin left the act in early 1962, and Ross, Ballard, and Wilson carried on as a trio.

During the mid-1960s, The Supremes achieved mainstream success with Ross as lead singer. In 1967, Motown president Berry Gordy renamed the group Diana Ross & the Supremes, and replaced Ballard with Cindy Birdsong. Ross left to pursue a solo career in 1970 and was replaced by Jean Terrell, at which point the group’s name reverted to The Supremes. After 1972, the lineup changed more frequently; Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne, and Susaye Greene all became members of the group during the mid-1970s. The Supremes disbanded in 1977 after an 18-year run.

Diana Ross (1944– )

An American singer and a founding member of the Motown group The Supremes often was the lead singer on songs, especially after Diana Ross left the group in 1970.

Diana_Ross 1_Nobel_Peace_Prize_Concert_2008_croppedDiana Ernestine Earle Ross
(born March 26, 1944) is an American singer, record producer, and actress. Ross was lead singer of the Motown group The Supremes during the 1960s. After leaving the group in 1970, Ross began a solo career that included successful ventures into film and Broadway. She received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her role as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), for which she won a Golden Globe award. She won seven American Music Awards, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, and won a Tony Award for her one-woman show, An Evening with Diana Ross, in 1977.

In 1976, Billboard magazine named her the "Female Entertainer of the Century.” In 1993, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Diana Ross the most successful female music artist in history due to her success in the United States and United Kingdom for having more hits than any female artist in the charts with a career total of 18 number one records in the United States. Diana Ross has sold more than 100 million records worldwide.

Ross is one of the few recording artists to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—one as a solo artist and the other as a member of The Supremes. In December 2007, she received a John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Honors Award.

In 1959, Ross was brought to the attention of Milton Jenkins, the manager of the local doo-wop group The Primes, by Mary Wilson. Primes member Paul Williams convinced Jenkins to enlist Ross in the sister group The Primettes, which included Wilson, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown. Ross, Wilson and Ballard each sang lead during live performances. In 1960, Lu Pine Records signed the group and issued the Ross-led single "Tears of Sorrow" backed with the Wilson-led "Pretty Baby". After winning a singing contest in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ross approached former neighbor Smokey Robinson for an audition at the label with which he recorded with, Motown Records. The group garnered the audition and impressed Motown’s CEO, Berry Gordy (who arrived at the audition during the group’s performance), but declined to work with the group due to their being underaged. Undeterred, the group would stand outside the label’s Hitsville U.S.A. studios hoping to grab attention, eventually providing backing vocals & hand claps for many of Motown’s more established artists. Meanwhile during the group’s struggling early years, Ross earned pay in the day as Berry Gordy’s secretary. She also served at the group’s main hair stylist, make-up artist, seamstress & costume designer during this period.

Florence Ballard (1943–1976)

An American singer and a founding member of the Motown group The Supremes often was the lead singer on songs, especially after Diana Ross left the group in 1970.

Florence Ballard_ABC_Records_Promo_from_1968Florence Glenda Ballard Chapman
(June 30, 1943 – February 22, 1976) was an American singer and a founding member of the Motown group The Supremes. From 1963 until 1967, Ballard sang on 16 Top 40 hit Supremes’ singles, ten of which hit number-one on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1967, Motown CEO Berry Gordy decided to remove Ballard from the Supremes. After being dropped from the group, Ballard struggled with a solo career in the late 1960s and spent much of the last five years of her life in relative poverty. In 1976, Ballard died of cardiac arrest at the age of thirty-two. Her death has been called "one of rock’s greatest tragedies.”

During their brief tenure as the Primettes, the group did not have a designated lead singer and sometimes sang in unison. While signed to local Lupine Records, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson sang lead on the group’s only 45 on that label, "Tears of Sorrow"/"Pretty Baby" though Ballard added a soprano whoop at the beginning of the latter track. Ballard and Ross co-wrote "Tears of Sorrow". Onstage, mainly Ballard, Ross and Wilson switched lead roles. After a couple years performing at sock hops and jubilees, the group signed with the Motown label as The Supremes, a name chosen by Ballard, on January 15, 1961.

While Ross sang lead on the group’s debut recording, "I Want a Guy", seventeen-year-old Ballard performed lead vocals on the second single, "Buttered Popcorn". According to Wilson, Ballard’s voice was so loud that she was made to stand up to seventeen feet away from her microphone during recording sessions, while the other two Supremes stood directly in front of their microphones. During this period, Ballard also briefly toured with The Marvelettes as a replacement for Wanda Young, who was out on maternity leave. Marvelettes lead singer Gladys Horton later recounted Ballard gave Horton advice before Horton went into the studio to record "Please Mr. Postman".

Though Ballard’s voice has been described as "soulful, big, rich, and commanding", ranging from deep contralto to operatic soprano, Ross was made lead singer of the Supremes in late 1963. Assigned to work with songwriting/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ross, Ballard, and Wilson subsequently released ten number-one US pop hits between 1964 and 1967, all of which featured Ross as lead. 

Mary Wilson (1944– )

A founding member of the Motown female singing group The Supremes, she was the only artist to be a consistent member of the group in its eighteen-year tenure of the group.

Mary_Wilson_at_Spaso_HouseMary Wilson
(born March 6, 1944) is an American singer. A founding member of the Motown female singing group The Supremes, she was the only artist to be a consistent member of the group in its eighteen-year tenure (1959-1977). During its lifespan the group scored 33 top 40 hits, including 12 national #1s on the Billboard pop music charts. She has published the autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme,which, at the time of it’s publication, set a record as the most successful autobiography ever written by a musical figure. She has also had two follow-up books published, Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, and an updated combination of the two entitled Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith: My Life as a Supreme. Her post Supremes solo career has been varied and included forays into musical theater, human rights activism, artist’s rights political action, a critically acclaimed jazz and blues cabaret act, organizing various museum displays of the Supremes famed costumes and world tours performing the music of the Supremes.

In 1958, Mary Wilson met Florence Ballard while both attended junior high school. They quickly became close friends with a mutual interest in music. When Milton Jenkins, manager of male vocal group The Primes, decided to form a female spin-off group called The Primettes, he recruited Ballard, who recruited Wilson. Wilson then recruited a new friend of hers, Diane Ross, and Jenkins added Betty McGlown to complete the lineup.

In 1967, after three years of phenomenal success, Motown chief Berry Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross & the Supremes and at Mary and Diana’s request replaced Florence Ballard with Cindy Birdsong. Although hits were less frequent during this time period, Diana Ross and the Supremes enjoyed their two biggest-selling hits in 1968 ("Love Child") and 1969 ("Someday We’ll Be Together"), respectively.

When Diana Ross left the group in 1970 for a solo career, singer Jean Terrell was brought in as her replacement, and the group was re-christened "The Supremes". The "New Supremes" – Wilson, Terrell, and Birdsong – continued their hit-making process from 1970 through 1972 with hits like "Up the Ladder to the Roof", "Stoned Love", "River Deep – Mountain High" (with the Four Tops), "Nathan Jones", and "Floy Joy". Wilson began sharing leads with Terrell on several of the singles, including "Touch", "Floy Joy", and "Automatically Sunshine".

Wilson took charge of the Supremes, assisting her husband in managing, and sharing lead vocal duties with Payne in the group. This lineup continued on until 1976, when Birdsong was replaced by Susaye Greene, also a former Wonderlove member. With Greene, the Supremes recorded two disco-flavored albums with some success, including the release of their final top forty hit "I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking" which also ranked number 1 on the dance charts. By the start of 1977, Wilson had finally decided to leave The Supremes and start her solo singing career. Her "farewell" performance with the group in its last line-up occurred on Sunday, June 12 of that year at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London, England. 

Chaka Kahn (1953– )

Singer Chaka Khan performs with the group Rufus on the "Soul Train" television show. (Photo Credit: Neal Preston/Corbis)

chaka-khanChaka Khan
(born Yvette Marie Stevens; March 23, 1953), frequently known as the Queen of Funk, is a 10-time Grammy Award winning American singer-songwriter who gained fame in the 1970s as the frontwoman and focal point of the funk band Rufus. While still a member of the group in 1978, Khan embarked on a successful solo career. Her signature hits, both with Rufus and as a solo performer, include "Tell Me Something Good", "Sweet Thing", "Ain’t Nobody", "I’m Every Woman", "I Feel for You" and "Through the Fire".

In 1974, Rufus released their self-titled debut album. Despite their fiery rendition of Stevie Wonder’s "Maybe Your Baby" from Wonder’s acclaimed Talking Book and the modest success of the Khan-led ballad "Whoever’s Thrilling You (Is Killing Me)", the album failed to garner attention. That changed when Wonder himself collaborated with the group on a song he had written for Khan. That song, "Tell Me Something Good", became the group’s breakthrough hit, reaching number-three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 later winning the group their first Grammy Award. The single’s success and the subsequent follow-up, "You Got the Love", which peaked at number-eleven on the Billboard Hot 100 helped their second parent album, Rags to Rufus, go platinum selling over a million copies. Between 1974 and 1979, Rufus would release six platinum-selling albums including Rufusized, Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, Ask Rufus, Street Player and Masterjam. Hits the group would score during this time included "Once You Get Started", "Sweet Thing", "Hollywood", "At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up)" and "Do You Love What You Feel".

In 1978, Warner Bros. Records released Khan’s solo debut album, which featured the crossover disco hit, "I’m Every Woman", written for her by songwriters Ashford & Simpson. The success of the single helped the album go platinum, selling over a million copies. Khan also was a featured performer on Quincy Jones’ hit, "Stuff Like That", also released in 1978.

In 1979, Khan reunited with Rufus to collaborate on the Jones-produced Masterjam, which featured their hit, "Do You Love What You Feel", which Khan sung with Tony Maiden. Despite her sometimes-acrimonious relationship with some of the group’s band mates, Khan and Maiden have maintained a friendship over the years. In 1979 she also duetted with Ry Cooder on his album Bop Till You Drop. In 1980, while Rufus released their second non-Khan release, Party ‘Til You’re Broke, Khan released her second solo album, Naughty, which featured Khan on the cover with her six-year-old daughter Milini. The album yielded the minor disco hit "Clouds" and went gold. Khan released two albums in 1981, the Rufus release, Camouflage and the solo album, What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me. The same year, Khan appeared on three tracks on Rick Wakeman’s concept album 1984. In 1982, Khan issued two more solo albums, the jazz-oriented Echoes of an Era and a more funk/pop-oriented self-titled album. The latter album’s track, the jazz-inflected "Bebop Medley", won Khan a Grammy and earned praise from Betty Carter who loved Khan’s vocal scatting in the song.

Patti LaBelle (1944– )

Patti LaBelle holding the award she won for Best Females R&B Vocal Performance at the 1992 Grammy Awards. (Photo Credit: Rick Maiman/Sygma/Corbis)


Patricia Louise Holte-Edwards (born May 24, 1944), better known under the stage name, Patti LaBelle, is an American singer, author and actress who has spent over 50 years in the music industry. LaBelle spent 16 years as lead singer of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, who changed their name to Labelle in the early 1970s and released the iconic disco song, "Lady Marmalade".

LaBelle started her solo career shortly after the group disbanded in 1977 and crossed over to pop music with "On My Own", "If Only You Knew", "If You Asked Me To", "Stir It Up" and "New Attitude". She has also recorded R&B ballads such as "You Are My Friend" and "Love, Need and Want You".

In late 1970, the group returned to the U.S. changing their name to Labelle and signing a contract with Warner Bros imprint, Track Records. Wickham then had the group open for rock group The Who. In mid-1971, the group released their Warner debut, Labelle. The record mixed harder-edged soul music with rock music elements, a marked departure from the pop sound of the Blue Belles. The album failed to catch on, as did their 1972 follow-up, Moon Shadow. The group, however, did find success singing alongside Laura Nyro on her acclaimed album, Gonna Take a Miracle. The group would tour with Nyro off and on for the next couple of years.

In 1973, Wickham had the group signed to RCA Records, where they recorded the Pressure Cookin’ album. In the middle of recording, LaBelle gave birth to her only child, Zuri. While promoting the album opening for The Rolling Stones, Wickham advised the group to adapt the same flamboyant costumes of rock artists such as T. Rex, Elton John and David Bowie. Soon, their own stage entrances started to take a life on its own, at one point the group members flew into the concert stage, while singing. Despite this change in direction, their third album failed to become a success. However, a scout for Epic Records advised the group to sign with them in 1974 at the end of the Rolling Stones tour.

Later that year, Labelle issued their most acclaimed album, Nightbirds. In October 1974, the group made history by becoming the first pop group to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. In late December, Epic issued the single, "Lady Marmalade". Within six months, the record became a smash and reached number-one on the Billboard Hot 100, the group’s first to do so. This helped their album sell over a million copies. Their fame was so massive during this time that they made the cover of Rolling Stone later in 1975.

Later in 1975, the group issued their follow-up, Phoenix, which did not quite catch on as fast though it was critically raved. They had a little more success with the Chameleon album in 1976, with the songs, "Get You Somebody New" and "Isn’t It A Shame", the latter song Patti LaBelle would say was "the last record we ever did together". Despite her success, LaBelle was not pleased at the group’s direction and by late 1976, neither LaBelle, Dash and Hendryx could agree on a musical direction. Following a concert in Baltimore in December 1976, LaBelle advised the others to break up. 


The paragraphs in italics above were taken from the slide show published by the History Channel (see References). Click HERE to access that slideshow. The photographs of the women are courtesy of Corbis and Getty Images.



Celebration of African American Music, History & Culture… (9:15)



Please take time to further explore more about African Americans, The Supremes, Dianna Ross, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Chaka Kahn, Patti LaBelle, Harlem Renaissance, and Black Women Musicians by accessing the Wikipedia articles referenced below…





Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: African Americans

Wikipedia: The Supremes…

Wikipedia: Dianna Ross…

Wikipedia: Florence Ballard…

Wikipedia: Mary Wilson…

Wikipedia: Chaka Kahn…

Wikipedia: Patti LaBelle…

Wikipedia: Harlem Renaissance…

History Channel: Black Women in Art and Literature: Black Women Musicians

Brainy Quote: Musicians Quotes…


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Prof. Boerner’s Explorations: Civil Rights: Marian Anderson’s Concert at Lincoln Memorial…

Prof. Boerner’s Explorations: Black Women in History: Josephine Baker…

Prof. Boerner’s Explorations: Black Women in History: Billy Holiday…

Prof. Boerner’s Explorations: Ella Fitzgerald: Wins Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater…