.Black female singers spent a lot of time at the top of the Billboard charts in the 1970s. This was due in part to the fact that the ‘70s were the disco era. Not all black female singers, however, were disco singers. The ‘70s introduced a number of black female singers from a variety of musical genres.
Soul and Funk
Diana Ross gained recognition in the 1960s as a member of the Supremes. Ross left the Supremes in 1969 to begin a solo career. She helped create a role for black female singers in the ‘60s, and she was one of the most esteemed black female singers of the ‘70s. Some of her solo hits include “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Touch Me in the Morning.” Ross’ popularity opened the door to a successful movie career and she portrayed Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Chaka Khan first gained fame and recognition fronting the funk band Rufus. She often is referred to as the Queen of Funk. Her style led to 10 Grammy awards. Her birth name was Yvette Marie Stevens but she was dubbed "Chaka" by an African shaman when she was a member of the Black Panther Party in 1969. Khan was heavily influenced by rhythm and blues. She joined Rufus in 1972, and the band signed with ABC Records in 1973. The band scored hits with “Tell Me Something Good” and “Sweet Thing."
Donna Summer was the disco queen in the 1970s. “Love to Love You, Baby” introduced Summer as the new female diva in 1975. Summer’s other hits included “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Last Dance.” Motown was a major influence, but she also had a passion for rock music and adored Janis Joplin. She performed in musicals and other musical incarnations in Europe during the early 1970s; this eventually led to her first solo album, “Lady of the Night,” in 1974. The album met with moderate success in Europe but garnered little notice in the United States. Her original ambition was to become a black female rock singer. Her decision to become a disco singer was based on the realization that there was no market for a black female rock singer. Gloria Gaynor was Summer’s main competition during the ‘70s. Gaynor began her career with the Soul Satisfiers but the band never charted a hit record. Gaynor’s major breakthrough came in 1975 when she released the album “Never Can Say Goodbye." Her next major hit was “I Will Survive” in 1978, which became Gaynor’s signature song and was celebrated as a song of female empowerment and emancipation.
Rhythm and Blues
Roberta Flack won back-to-back Grammy awards in 1973 and 1974 for record of the year. She incorporated different genres such as jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, and folk music to create a unique style. Flack was discovered by jazz pianist Les McCann and signed to a deal with Atlantic Records. Flack’s first two albums were applauded and praised by music critics, but they did not enjoy huge commercial success. Her breakthrough came with the song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The song was featured on the soundtrack of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film “Play Misty for Me.” The song was a number one hit for Flack that year. Her musical partnership with Donny Hathaway produced several hits, including “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Minnie Riperton accomplished a lot during a short career and a short life. She worked as a backup singer for music legends such as Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. She had a major hit in 1975 with “Loving You.” The song showcased Ripteron’s five-and-a-half-octave range. The song was on Riperton’s second solo album, “Perfect Anger.” She was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away in 1979 at age 31. She used her fame to become a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society.
Folk, Singer and Songwriter
Phoebe Snow entered the music scene in 1974 with her debut album, “Phoebe Snow.” The album rose to number 4 on the charts on the strength of the single “Poetry Man.” She received a Grammy nomination for best new artist of the year in 1974. Snow was part of the singer-songwriter and folk traditions. She had more in common with James Taylor than with the other black female singers of the ‘70s. Snow’s voice and music, however, also leaned heavily on jazz, blues, funk and gospel influences. She recorded her own versions of Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman” and the Temptations’ “Shaky Ground.”
Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.