Women of Soul: Breaking Barriers

When I started working on this article, “Women of Soul,” I was initially doing research on another article, “Women of Motown”. To my surprise, I discovered that many of the women who were on our most popular soul music singers list were not signed to this top-selling funk and soul music label. In order to make this a more comprehensive and complete article, I had to widen the parameters a bit. After all, what would a “Women in Soul” article be without Aretha? Or Etta James? Or Patti Labelle? Along with Diana Ross, these were the women who broke down the barriers for females in soul music genre.

Etta James

Upon hearing the first powerful notes of “At Last”, you just knew Etta James (born Jamesetta Hawkins) was going to be a force to be reckoned with. James received her first professional vocal training at the age of five from James Earle Hines, the choir director of her church in Watts. Allegedly, she suffered physical abuse during her early years under his training, with him punching her in the chest while she sang to force her voice to come from her gut, causing her to develop an unusually strong voice at an early age. Her early years with foster families were also filled with abuse, and her voice was her only escape. Her biological mother reappeared and relocated them to the San Francisco area, where Etta would gain the attention of Little Richard at age 14. Signed to Modern Records at first, they would also transpose her name from “Jamesetta” to “Etta James”. She toured extensively with numerous bands, before signing with Chess Records in 1960. Her debut album “At Last!” was released in late 1960 and would contain the title track which became her signature song. The early to mid-60s would be her strongest period as a performer; seeing her continuously touring to promote her albums. Her star was never as bright as in those early days. She took a sabbatical while struggling with drug and alcohol addiction through the late 70s and early 80s, only to reappear publicly a few times to perform. In 1989, James signed first with Island Records to release 2 more albums, then with Private Music Records in 1993. That same year, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She would continue to record and perform until her death in 2012, suffering from both early onset Alzheimers disease and leukemia.

Aretha Franklin

The inimitableAretha Franklin started her career as a young gospel artist who was signed initially to Columbia Records. Her career moved to a larger stage in 1966 when she was signed to Atlantic Records after her contract at Columbia expired. She then produced a veritable chain of hits, including “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” thus earning her the nickname “Queen of Soul” very early on. In 1980, she signed with Clive Davis’ label, Arista Records, and continued to churn out hit single after hit single. She would go on to chart over 112 singles by the end of her career and is the most charted female artist in history. Franklin’s final top 40 single was 1998’s “A Rose Is Still a Rose”. She would go on to perform well into the 2000s, most notably at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2009. However, in 2017, Franklin would start canceling performances, citing her declining health as the reason, before finally passing away in August, 2018.

While Aretha is very well known for her musical abilities, she was also a fierce civil rights and women’s health activist. Her songs “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” both became anthems of these movements for social change. In addition, Franklin was also a strong supporter of Native American rights.

The Supremes

Originally known as The Primettes, The Supremes were formed in the late 50s as a “sister” group to an all-male group called The Primes. Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Betty McGlown were the original four. As the story goes, in hopes of getting themselves signed to the local upstart Motown label, in 1960 Ross asked an old neighbor, Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson, to help the group land an audition for Motown executive Berry Gordy while still in high school. Gordy was impressed, but felt the girls were too young and said to “come back when you graduate from school”. McGlown left to get married and was replaced by Barbara Martin. The girls continued to frequent the Hitsville U.S.A. recording studio almost daily, and in January 1961, Gordy finally relented and agreed to sign the girls to his label – but under the condition that they change the name of their group. The girls were given a list of choices, and selected The Supremes, even though Ross felt it was “too masculine”. In early 1962, Martin left the band and they continued as a trio. Between 1961 and 1963, the Supremes released six singles, none of which charted, and the girls were jokingly referred to as the “no-hit Supremes” around the Motown offices. Undaunted, the girls hung out, answered phones and took gigs as backup vocals on other acts albums just to keep their foot in the door. Diana Ross was chosen by Berry Gordy as the group’s leader, and in 1964, the girls released “Where Did Our Love Go”, which would become the group’s first number one single. “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again” would follow in rapid succession, and the girls went from “no-hits” to “mega-hits” almost overnight.

The Supremes were the most commercially successful of Motown’s acts and are, to date, America’s most successful vocal group. Gordy would also dress and style the girls in very feminine gowns in order to give them a more glamorous image. Gordy wanted the Supremes, like all of his performers, to be equally appealing to black and white audiences, and he sought to erase the image of black performers as being unrefined or lacking class. In fact, The Supremes’ cross-cultural success effectively paved the way for the mainstream success of contemporaneous label mates such as the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Jackson 5.

Problems within the group and within Motown Records’ stable of performers led to tension among the members of the Supremes. Many of the other Motown performers felt that Berry Gordy was lavishing too much attention upon the group and upon Ross, in particular. The discord led Ballard to become depressed, and start drinking heavily, causing her to be late to rehearsals and performances. Even worse, she would not show up at all, or show up too inebriated to perform. Gordy hired singers on stand-by, and eventually forced Ballard out. Before long, Diana would also strike out on her own, and become a solo act.

Diana Ross

Following her departure from the Supremes in 1970, Diana Ross released her debut solo album, featuring the hits “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”. More solo albums and singles would follow, along with a duet album with Marvin Gaye, movie soundtracks, and in 1974, Ross being the first African-American woman to co-host the Academy Awards. She would continue to release albums with Motown until 1980, when she finally broke away from the label, after 20 years of success there. She signed with RCA, who gave her a $20 million, seven-year recording contract. This new deal also gave her complete production control of her albums. At the time, this was the most expensive recording deal to date, and was unprecedented for a female artist.

During the 70s, Ross also began her acting career, starring in films like “Lady Sings the Blues”, “Mahogany”, and “The Wiz”. She would record the soundtracks for each of these films. She carried this success over into the 80s, with more hit solo albums as well as numerous duets with Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Julio Iglesias, and contributing to the massive collaborative hit “We Are the World” in 1985.

In 1988, Ross chose to not renew her RCA contract, and had been in talks with her former mentor Berry Gordy to return to Motown. When she learned of Gordy’s plans to sell Motown, Ross first advised him against the decision though he ultimately sold it to MCA Records in 1988. Following the sale of the company, Ross was asked to return to the Motown label with the condition that she have shares in the company as a part-owner. Ross accepted the offer.

She has continued to thrive through the 90s until present day, performing in numerous benefits, and appearing on many friends’ albums, while also releasing her own music. She had a mini-residency at The Wynn in Las Vegas in early 2018. On February 10, 2019, the Recording Academy honored Ross at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. She performed 2 of her hits flawlessly, and appeared youthful and vibrant, looking like someone half her age. With over 30 albums to her credit, she continues to be a true diva.

Patti Labelle

Starting off first as the Ordettes, then the Blue Belles, then Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, then just Labelle, and finally as a solo artist, Patti LaBelle’s career rarely had a dull moment. Labelle began as a gospel singer in her church choir at age 10 and was singing solos by age 12. At age 16, she won a high school talent competition, which led to the formation of the Ordettes with schoolmates Jean Brown, Yvonne Hogen, and Johnnie Dawson. This lineup would be short-lived, as 2 of the girls left to get married, and a third was forced out by her very religious father. In 1962, the Ordettes added three new members, Cindy Birdsong, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx. They auditioned for local label owner Harold Robinson, who initially was dismissive of Patti as he felt she was “too dark and too plain”. However, her voice won him over, and they recorded initially as the Blue Belles. A small court skirmish would result in yet another name change to Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles. They recorded their first hit “Down the Aisle”, and subsequent crossover hits “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Danny Boy” before their label folded.

The group then moved to New York and signed with Atlantic Records, where they would record another 12 modestly successful singles. Birdsong left the group in 1967, and they were ultimately dropped by Atlantic in 1970. Their long-time manager quit, and then Vicki Wickham, producer of the UK music show “Ready, Steady, Go,” agreed to manage the group after Dusty Springfield mentioned signing them. Wickham’s first direction for the group was for them to change their name to simply Labelle and advised the group to renew their act, going for a more homegrown look and sound that reflected funk, rock and psychedelic soul. Labelle signed with a sub-label of Warner Records, and took their music in a new direction, reflecting their funk, rock, and soul roots intermingled with glam rock influenced by David Bowie and Elton John. Several albums followed in succession before they released the single “Lady Marmalade”, which would become their biggest selling single. The group would ride high on that success until internal problems surfaced, and they broke up at the end of 1976.

Undaunted, Patti would go on to a very successful solo career after signing with Epic Records. Her biggest solo success came after she was tapped to record 2 songs, “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up” for the upcoming Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. Following the premier of the film, “New Attitude” was released as a single in late 1984 and became LaBelle’s first crossover solo hit. She would continue to have massive success as a crossover artist for the remainder of the 80s and throughout the 90s. In the 2000s, a disagreement with L.A. Reid on her career path would cause Patti to leave her label.

Forever a fearless woman, Patti forged forward, continuing to rack up awards and achievements, one of the greatest being performing in the “Women Of Soul” concert with Aretha, hosted by President Barack Obama at the White House. She also returned to the Broadway stage, as well as appearing as a guest/host on several television shows. She continues to tour today.

How awe-inspiring are these women? We are blown away by the fortitude and perseverance it took to forge forward against all odds. There are so many more inspirational women in soul. Perhaps this will lead to a part 2? Let us know if that’s something you’d like to read.

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]