Black History: The first 13 females inducted to the Rock Hall of Fame were these African-American icons

(January 31, 2021).  As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame prepares to announce its nominees for the Class of 2021, and as we celebrate the beginning of this year’s Black History Month, DJROBBLOG thought it would be a great time for a true rock and roll history lesson.

Now this is a timely piece of history, not only because of the month’s perennial designation or the pending nominations, but because the Rock Hall is also celebrating the 35th anniversary of its first inductees (from 1986).   

It’s also notable because of the irony this bit of history poses when placed against the backdrop of criticism the RRHOF regularly receives from genre purists who have a very parochial view of the type of artists the Rock Hall should include.  

The blowback usually occurs whenever the Hall inducts an artist whose music wasn’t regularly amplified by electric guitars or bass and a strong driving drum beat.  Typically, women – more specifically, women of color – are targeted the most, including, most recently the late Whitney Houston (Class of 2020) and Janet Jackson (2019), both considered more pop or R&B than rock.  

But that criticism ignores the fact that the Rock Hall of Fame’s female legacy was built on “non-rock” artists who, like Houston and Jackson for the most part, sang anything but guitar-driven rock music. 

In fact, if you exclude the category of Non-Performers (formally known as the Ahmet Ertegun Award), and only include Performers and Early Influences, then the first THIRTEEN females inducted into the RRHOF were all African-American.

Allow me to set the stage.  

Not surprisingly, the very first inductees into the Rock Hall were all men – fourteen of them to be exact – in 1986.  This included eleven “performers” and three “early influences” all from the very male-dominated early days of rock and roll.

But beginning with the first woman to be inducted – Aretha Franklin in 1987 – and continuing for the next six years, 13 women were added.  This included legendary acts like The Supremes (original members Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard), LaVern Baker, Tina Turner (inducted with her late husband Ike), Ruth Brown, Etta James, and two members of Sly & the Family Stone: Cynthia Robinson and Rosie Stone, all in the Performers category.

Additionally, in the Early Influences category between 1989 and 1993 three legendary African-American blues women were also inducted.

That’s thirteen different Black women who were inducted before the first non-African-American female – Janis Joplin – was inducted in either of the two performer-based categories in 1995.

To commemorate this amazing piece of history, DJROBBLOG is showcasing each one of these iconic women below with a picture and a brief capsule of their musical legacies.

Now there is an asterisk to this. If you throw in the non-performer category, then legendary singer/songwriter Carole King – who is white – was inducted in 1990 for her songwriting (as part of the songwriting team with Gerry Goffin). That was before Joplin and before people like LaVern Baker, Tina Turner, Ruth Brown, Etta James, and some of the others.  

But King’s non-performer (songwriting) status is a distinction that is not without a difference, as Carole would not have been eligible to be inducted as a Performer until 1995 (her first recording as a singer was released in 1970, establishing the 25-year eligibility clock). That eligibility occurred years after the aforementioned women were already inducted. 

By the way, I consider King’s omission as a Performer to be a snub given that other artists have gotten into the RRHOF on much less quality work than her iconic Tapestry album alone, but that’s another article for another day.

The representation of African-American women in the early years of the RRHOF is astonishing considering how marginalized Black women have been when it comes to popular music and especially the genre of rock and roll.  With few exceptions throughout popular music history, and especially more recently, these women have been seen (and marketed) more as sexual objects than pioneering music legends.

Or, they’ve been derided as lightweight R&B or pop music singers whose rock-and-roll credibility, with possibly the lone exception of the iconic rock queen Tina Turner, has been seen as dubious at best.

Instead, the female names most synonymous with rock music have been white artists like Joplin, King, Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Ann & Nancy Wilson, Patti Smith, Chryssie Hynde, Joan Jett and Pat Benatar.  Among those named, Pat Benatar is the only one who has yet to be inducted (another snub, I might add, given her more than 15 years of eligibility and very worthy song catalogue).

But few followers of rock music history would be able to name all 13 of these first female inductees into rock’s most hallowed museum, and even fewer would know that all of them were indeed Black.

So the blog is here to help. With no further delay, here’s the list of all 13 women, along with a short story on each one’s legacy.

First, the Performers:

Aretha Franklin (1987).

Aretha Franklin sings in the studio during during her early career at Columbia Records.

It was only fitting that a woman of Aretha’s stature be the first woman inducted to the RRHOF.  In 1987, with its 25-year eligibility rule, the Queen of Soul was one of the few women even eligible from the male-dominated early 1960s.  That, plus her career-long dedication to social causes (both racial and gender-related), not to mention her incredible musical legacy that included 20 No. 1 soul hits, 18 Grammy awards, two No. 1 pop singles – including one of the most iconic pop and soul hits of all time, her rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – made Aretha a shoo-in.  Sadly, Franklin died in Michigan in 2018 after a long bout with pancreatic cancer.

Diana Ross (The Supremes; 1988).

Diana Ross

The Supremes were the first girl group (and the third Motown act overall after Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson) to be inducted.  Diana Ross, who was the lead singer and primary face of the group from its earliest big hits until she left in 1970, had a stellar solo career afterwards.  The only wonder is that she’s not in as a solo artist, considering she was statistically the top female act of the rock-and-roll era – based on her solo chart success – until Madonna displaced her in the late 1980s.

Mary Wilson (The Supremes; 1988).

Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson didn’t have a solo lead on any of the Supremes’ biggest hits, but she was with the group the longest – from its founding to her departure in 1977 – after which the group was disbanded when they couldn’t find a replacement.  Despite always playing second-fiddle to Diana Ross, Wilson was the member who fought the hardest for the group in seeking to preserve its legacy, particularly after Ross left.

For example, when former replacement singers began touring using the Supremes name without any of the original members present, Wilson took them to court (unsuccessfully) then pursued legislation to prevent imposter groups from performing under the names of legacy acts like the Supremes in the future.  The so-named “Truth in Music Bill” was ratified in 28 states, thanks to her efforts.   

Florence Ballard (The Supremes; 1988).

Florence Ballard

By most accounts, the most troubled member of the Supremes also had the strongest voice of the trio.  Florence Ballard sang lead on several early Supremes songs before Diana’s vocals on their first real hit, “When The Love Light Starts Shining Through His Eyes” convinced Berry Gordy to make Ross the group’s new permanent lead singer.  Ballard, who’d come up with the group’s name (formerly the Primettes), left in 1967 after the trio had amassed 10 of its 12 No. 1 pop singles.

Other than the Beatles, no other group has had double-digit No. 1 hits (although several solo artists have).  After a short solo stint with ABC Records, Ballard died of coronary failure in 1976 at age 32.

It’s a little-known fact that the 1979 Steve Forbert classic, “Romeo’s Tune,” was dedicated to the memory of Florence Ballard – as indicated on the sleeve of Forbert’s second album Jackrabbit Slim.  He later stated that the song wasn’t about Ballard, but that he dedicated it to her because of her sad story, noting that she “wasn’t really taken care of by the music business.”

LaVern Baker (1991).

LaVern Baker

Chicagoan LaVern Baker was born Delores Evans in 1929, and began recording for Atlantic Records in 1953.  Her first big hit, the uptempo novelty “Tweedle Dee” became a top-20 record in 1955, just as rock and roll music was starting to take off.  It was notably covered by pop singer Georgia Gibbs whose more successful version went all the way to No. 2, prompting Baker to lobby Congress for better copyright protection laws, which didn’t adequately protect artists’ original recordings at the time.

Despite Gibbs’ bigger success on the charts covering other acts’ – namely Black R&B artists like Baker – it was Baker and not Gibbs who was inducted to the RRHOF, where she became the second solo female selected (after Franklin).  Coincidentally, both Baker and Franklin had the bulk of their success while signed to Atlantic Records.  Baker died of cardiovascular disease in 1997 at the age of 67.

Tina Turner (Ike and Tina Turner; 1991).

Tina Turner

Of these first 13 women to be inducted to the RRHOF, Tina Turner is the one whose name is most synonymous with “rock and roll.”  She’s been dubbed Queen of Rock & Roll by many publications, historians and fans over the years.  Yet, even with her notable rock credibility, Tina’s entry to its hallowed halls is not on her own solo merits but as half of the duo Ike & Tina Turner.

Not to discredit what Tina and her late ex-husband accomplished together in the 1960s and ‘70s, which was significant, but the Queen should easily be considered for a solo induction, similar to double members like Stevie Nicks (in as a solo artist and as a member of Fleetwood Mac), Clyde McPhatter (solo, The Drifters) and Lou Reed (solo, The Velvet Underground), among many others!  Her comeback album alone, 1984’s Private Dancer, and the singles from it – as well as the albums and songs that followed – compare favorably to the works of most people – male or female – who are in as solo artists,…just sayin’.

Ruth Brown (1993).

Ruth Brown

Before there was Aretha, there was Ruth.  And before either Franklin or LaVern Baker made the label their home, Atlantic Records was considered “The House That Ruth Built.”  So, it is only natural that the first “Queen of R&B” should be inducted to the RRHOF.  In fact, some might argue that she should have been the first female selected.  

As it was, she was the third solo female to be included after the aforementioned two, making Atlantic Records the proud home to all three of these legendary women.  

Brown’s first big hit was 1949’s “So Long” which appeared later on a 1957 compilation album appropriately titled Rock & Roll.  Her first chart-topper was “Teardrops From My Eyes,” which topped the Billboard R&B chart in December 1950 and remained at No. 1 for eleven weeks.  By the end of the 1950s, she had racked up two dozen top-40 R&B chart hits, including five No. 1s and several pop crossovers.

Brown’s efforts in the fight for musicians’ rights and royalties led to the 1988 founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of R&B music.   Notably Brown and LaVern Baker were among the first recipients of the foundation’s Pioneer Award (for lifelong contributions instrumental to the development of R&B) in 1989, three years before Aretha received a lifetime achievement award in the category.  Brown died in November 2006 from complications following a surgery at the age of 78.

Etta James (1993).

Etta James

Jamesetta Hawkins, whose first name was transposed to the moniker we all knew her by, was among those first recipients of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1989.  It was just the first of many accolades the blues/soul/rock legend would receive over the years, including her inductions into the Rock and Roll, Grammy, and Blues Halls of Fame in 1993, 1999 and 2001, respectively. 

Before that recognition, James was considered one of the most under-appreciated singers of her era, the most successful part of which occurred with the famous Chess Records label during the first half of the 1960s.  It was then that her signature hit, “At Last,” was recorded, along with several successful followups like “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” and “Pushover.”  James, who’d come up with a young Elvis Presley in the 1950s (they shared a bill together in a large club outside Memphis when he was 19) and later performed with the likes of Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead, got her rock and roll pedigree honestly.  

But James had a rough existence in the world of rock and roll.  A well-documented heroin addict, the contralto-voiced singer died in 2012 after battling leukemia and dementia.

Cynthia Robinson (Sly & the Family Stone; 1993).

Cynthia Robinson

Like Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard before them, the two female members of Sly & the Family Stone got into the RRHOF by virtue of their memberships in an iconic group.  In this case, however, Cynthia Robinson had a much more prominent role in the success of the Family Stone than either of the two backup Supremes did for their group.  Robinson played trombone for her band and provided prominent vocals on their hits “Dance To The Music” and “I Want To Take You Higher,” prompting her to be regarded as the original “hype man” by some.  

The story goes that Robinson’s classmates picked on her for playing a “boy’s instrument” when she joined her high school band in the early 1960s.  But by 1971, she and her professional bandmates had racked up three No. 1 Hot 100 hits and, in 1993, she became the first female trumpeter to be inducted into the RRHOF.  Robinson died in California in 2015 at the age of 71.

Rosie Stone (Sly & the Family Stone; 1993).

Rosie Stone

Rosemary Stewart adopted the name Rosie Stone – a/k/a “Sister Rose” – for the band founded by her brothers Sly Stone and Freddie Stone.  Often donning a platinum-blond wig, she played keyboards for the group and sang prominently on several of their hits.  Most famous among them was their final No. 1, “Family Affair” in late 1971, where she provided the titular hook, memorably alternating with her brother’s raspy baritone on the verses.

Like her bandmate Cynthia Robinson, Sister Rose became the first female to be inducted to the RRHOF for playing the instrument of her choice – in this case, keyboards.  She has since appeared on recordings by acts as diverse as Michael Jackson, Phish, Ringo Starr and Robbie Williams, along with gospel great Sandra Crouch.  She’s devoted most of her time in recent years to her brother Freddie’s church and recorded a gospel album, Already Motivated, in 2008.

And now, the Early Influences: 

Bessie Smith (1989).

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was inducted to the RRHOF as an early Blues influence.  Born in the 1890s, she went on to become the most popular blues singer – and  highest-paid Black entertainer overall – in the 1920s and early 1930s.  She recorded for Columbia Records primarily and was among the first artists billed under the title “race records,” which was the term of art for Black musicians who were marketed separately from whites.  Still, she achieved great success, often recording with the likes of legends like Louis Armstrong and the Dorsey Brothers.  Her career was railroaded by the Great Depression and she ultimately lost her life after a car crash in 1937.  

Ma Rainey (1990).

Ma Rainey

Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett was born in the 1880s, making her the earliest-born of all the women inducted to the RRHOF.  She was a classic blues singer who toured with minstrels in the early 1900s.  Like Bessie Smith around the same time, Rainey performed with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey.

While it was rumored that Smith and Rainey had a romantic relationship, it was never confirmed.  However, Rainey’s attraction to women was on full display in the recent Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a semi-fictional account of the recording session of that so-titled song starring Viola Davis as Rainey (as well as Chadwick Boseman in his last acting role).  Ma Rainey’s 1924 hit “See See Rider Blues” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and is preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.  Rainey died in December 1939 in Columbus, GA, which was also her birthplace. 

Dinah Washington (1993).

Dinah Washington

Long before Cardi B rapped about a “WAP,” jazz and blues legend Dinah Washington (born Ruth Jones in Alabama) recorded songs like “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” (supposedly about a trombonist) and “Long John Blues,” with dentist-inspired lyrics like “he took out his trusty drill, told me to open wide. He said he wouldn’t hurt me, but he filled my whole inside.”

That was her sultry “dirty blues” period more than sixty years ago.  Otherwise, the “Queen of the Blues” recorded more radio-friendly tunes that gave her 27 top-10 R&B hits between 1948-55, a period during which she was arguably the most popular black female recording artist in America.  Among her most legendary hits were songs like the No. 1s “Am I Asking Too Much,” “Baby Get Lost,” “Baby You’ve Got What It Takes” (with Brook Benton), and “This Bitter Earth.”  Her lone Grammy award was for best R&B performance on “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” in 1959, a song that is included with two others in the Grammy Hall of Fame.  Her “TV is the Thing (This Year)” is listed in the RRHOF as one of the songs that shaped rock and roll.

Ironically, upon Washington’s death in December 1963, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin recorded a tribute album released the following February entitled Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, bringing us full circle in this special tribute to the first 13 women to be inducted to the RRHOF as performers/early influences, from the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to the Queen of the Blues Dinah Washington.

So hopefully this little journey through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s early history shows that the music’s true legacy – as depicted in its most famous hallowed halls – is not limited to rock music as it is stereotypically defined by people with a narrow view on such things. The legacy and the history of rock rests on the shoulders of these Black women who paved the way for the many who followed, regardless of race or gender.

I hope you enjoyed this special tribute.  Please feel free to comment either in the comment section below or in any of the social media feeds where this article is posted. 

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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