(April 8, 2022). In honor of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic confirmation as America’s first Black female Supreme Court Justice on Thursday, April 7, djrobblog is celebrating by honoring Black women who were the first to achieve major milestones in the music industry.
For most of early modern music history, women in general have had to exist in an industry where men owned the record companies, owned the record stores (and now streaming and digital platforms), controlled radio station programming, made A&R decisions, wrote and produced the songs, signed the contracts, and controlled the trade press and record charts. So it was always notable when any woman—Black or otherwise—made strides in this otherwise male-dominated business.
For all the achievements they’ve had in music, and for all their tremendous talents, there could hardly be a more under-appreciated, under-represented group in the music industry than Black women. That’s why it was—and still is—a big deal when women like the late Vivian Carter and late Sylvia Robinson became record industry icons by starting their own labels and writing and producing hits for artists on their rosters.
Carter founded Vee-Jay Records in Chicago during the 1950s with future husband Jimmy Bracken, and the label became the first successful Black-owned recording company in the U.S. Specializing in R&B, blues and rock and roll, Vee-Jay touted hits by major artists, including early songs by the Beatles and Four Seasons.
Robinson founded All Platinum Records (1967) and various subsidiaries with husband Joe Robinson and saw major success through the mid 1970s. She later cofounded Sugar Hill Records and became the “Mother of Hip-Hop” and the driving force behind “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, which was the first rap song to hit the pop chart, as well as “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, among other iconic hits on the label before it folded in 1986.
Black women’s accomplishments in music date all the way back to the first documented Black female “pop star,” a former slave named Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield who, as an opera singer during the 1850s (yes, that’s 1800s), endured overtly racist venues, audiences and critic’s reviews while shattering stereotypes about Black women (and people in general) with her concert performances. One concert in particular, a performance at New York City’s Metropolitan Hall on March 31, 1953, forced white audiences to reconcile their views about the abilities of Black singers with what they were witnessing with their very eyes.
Nicknamed the “Black Swan,” Greenfield became the inspiration behind the very first Black-owned record company, Black Swan Records, to be operated and marketed to African Americans in the early 20th century.
As the teaching of Black history has become highly politicized in the past two years (mostly under the guise of “critical race theory” somehow being construed as hate-mongering), it would be nice if we lived in a world where discussing one’s accomplishments didn’t warrant a reference to his, her or their ethnicity. But we’re not in that utopia yet—far from it—especially when we’re still seeing milestones like the first Black female associate justice on a Supreme Court whose history is 232 years and more than 115 justices deep.
So, djrobblog is using this occasion to celebrate Black women and their major “firsts” in the music industry. I hope you enjoy (and get something out of it).
These were the First Black Women to…
Be inducted into the RRHOF:
Aretha Franklin (January 21, 1987). Franklin was inducted by Rolling Stone legend Keith Richards and was not only the first Black woman to be inducted, but the first woman, period. In fact, the first thirteen women to be inducted in any of the performers categories were Black women.
Earn a No. 1 Soul/R&B chart single:
Billie Holiday (November 7, 1942 on Paul Whiteman’s hit “Trav’lin’ Light”). Holiday was listed on the record label as “Lady Day,” her famous nickname. Her label credit would be akin to being tagged as a featured artist in today’s vernacular.
The first woman to earn a No. 1 R&B chart single in her own right was Bea Booze (born Beatrice Booze) on January 16, 1943 with “See See Rider Blues,” written by Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey. That would also make Rainey the first Black woman to write a No. 1 song by herself. (Note: Billboard published its first R&B chart—The Harlem Hit Parade—in October 1942.)
Have a No. 1 pop song (group):
Zola Taylor (of The Platters). Zola topped the Billboard charts with four songs (“The Great Pretender,” “My Prayer,” “Twilight Time” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) between 1955 and 1959 as a member of The Platters but didn’t sing lead on any of their No. 1 hits. The first Black women to top the chart as a member of a group where women sang lead were The Shirelles (Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris, Beverly Lee). Song: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (January 1961).
Have a No. 1 song (solo) on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart:
Little Eva (born Eva Narcissus Boyd). Song: “The Loco-Motion” (August 1963). The next solo Black woman to have a No. 1 song wouldn’t occur for four years (Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” in 1967).
Win a Grammy for Record of the Year (as artists):
Florence LaRue and Marilyn McCoo (both as members of the Fifth Dimension). Song: “Up, Up & Away” (1968). Notably, they became the next women to win the award two years later for “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” (1970).
Incidentally, the first Black woman to win Record of the Year as a solo artist was Roberta Flack, who also became the first woman to win the award in consecutive years with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly With His Song” in 1973 and 1974, respectively. The following year, in 1975, Roberta Flack became the first Black woman to be nominated for this award as a producer (under the pseudonym Rubina Flake) when she was nominated for her song “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Flack lost that year to Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You” (both songs reached No. 1 in 1974). Note: Flack’s “The First Time” is also the first song by a Black woman to rank as the top single of the year on Billboard’s Hot 100 annual recap.
Win a Grammy for Record of the Year in a technical role (producer, sound or mastering engineer, mixer, etc.):
Kesha Lee (in 2019 as sound engineer for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”). Lee, who is part of the thriving Atlanta music scene, remains the only Black woman to win this award solely in a technical capacity in the Grammys’ 64-year history.
Win a Grammy for Best Song (awarded to songwriters):
Alicia Keys. Song: “Fallin’” (2002). Keys also became the first Black woman to write and produce her own No. 1 hit with no co-writers or producers when “Fallin’” topped the Hot 100 on August 18, 2001.
Win a Grammy for Album of the Year (artist):
Natalie Cole for Unforgettable… with Love (1992). Cole’s achievement was barely before Whitney Houston’s, who won two years later for her The Bodyguard – Original Soundtrack Album.
Win a Grammy for Best New Artist:
Natalie Cole (1976). Cole was the first African American overall to win this award. She was also only the second person to win the Grammy for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance after Aretha Franklin won that award during its first eight years of existence (1968-75).
Have a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200:
The Supremes (October 1966; The Supremes A’ Go-Go). By this point, The Supremes (Diana Ross, and the late Mary Wilson and late Florence Ballard) had already topped the singles chart seven times, and would have five more No. 1 songs before 1970. They would also have the next two albums by Black females to hit No. 1 (in 1967 and 1969). By the way, the first Black solo woman to have a No. 1 album was Roberta Flack (First Take in 1972).
Earn an RIAA platinum-certified single:
Gwen Dickey (a/k/a Rose Norwalt of the band Rose Royce). Song: “Car Wash” (certified February 22, 1977 when “platinum” meant two million singles shipped). Note: the band A Taste of Honey, featuring two women (Janice-Marie Johnson and Hazel Payne) in lead roles, earned a platinum certification for “Boogie Oogie Oogie” in October 1978.
The first solo Black woman to earn a platinum single certification was Gloria Gaynor for “I Will Survive” (April 16, 1979). All three of the above songs topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, with the first two also topping the Billboard soul chart.
Earn a platinum-certified album:
The Emotions (Wanda Hutchinson, Sheila Hutchinson, Jeanette Hutchinson and Pamela Hutchinson). Album: Rejoice, September 1, 1977, featuring the No. 1 pop and soul single “Best of My Love.” At the time, “Best of My Love” was the longest-running No. 1 hit by a girl group.
Donna Summer was the first solo Black female to achieve platinum certification (Live and More, October 19, 1978). She is also the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Female Rock performance (“Hot Stuff” in 1980) and the first person of any gender or race to have three consecutive double-LPs (back when vinyl ruled) reach No. 1 on the album chart, all of which were certified platinum. Note: the RIAA didn’t start issuing platinum certifications (1 million albums sold) until 1976. Also, Motown and a few other labels were not RIAA members at the time and were not having their records audited by the certifying firm.
Earn a Diamond-certified album:
Whitney Houston. Album: The Bodyguard (Soundtrack), November 3, 1993 (less than a year after its original release). The late icon’s 1985 debut album Whitney Houston was also certified Diamond on January 25, 1994. Diamond certifications are awarded for sales of ten million copies (same criteria for albums and singles). Both of those Whitney albums have been certified for many more millions in sales since then (18 million and 13 million, respectively), while her second album Whitney (1987) has since reached Diamond status (October 28, 2020), making her the first Black woman with three such albums.
Earn a No. 1 Rap chart single:
MC Lyte. Song: “Cha Cha Cha” in December 1989. Note: Billboard didn’t inaugurate its Hot Rap Songs chart until March 1989 (then known as Hot Rap Singles). Hip-hop pioneers like The Sequence (largely documented as the first female rap act) and Roxanne Shante thus missed out on chart glory. Notables: Da Brat (first female rapper with a platinum album), Foxy Brown (first female rapper with a No. 1 album) and Lauryn Hill (first female rapper to win an Album of the Year and Best New Artist Grammy) also have notable firsts in the hip-hop genre.
Win an Oscar for Best Original Song:
H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas, co-writers on H.E.R.’s “Fight for You” from the film Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). (Note: Irene Cara, who won in 1984 for co-writing “Flashdance… What a Feeling” from the 1983 film Flashdance, is of Puerto Rican and Cuban-American heritage.)
Land on Forbes Annual Billionaires list (as a musician/former musician):
Rihanna (April 2022). Rihanna, born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, officially joined the list this week after embarking on several highly successful business ventures, including her Fenty fashion line. The superstar Barbadian singer also has had 14 No. 1 singles (all between 2007 and 2016) on the Billboard Hot 100, placing her behind only Mariah Carey (19) as the solo woman with the most. (Btw, I think we all know who the first Black female Billionaire is—musician or otherwise—and, no, it’s not Beyoncé.)
Learn more: Black women in country music
Those are just some of the amazing firsts by Black women in music. I’m sure readers will be able to come up with many more. Feel free to submit any that I’ve missed either in the comment section below or on any of the social media feeds where this article is posted.
Oh, and congratulations to Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and to women of color all over the country on an accomplishment way overdue!
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast 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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