One of the most powerful singers of all time, the of has embedded itself into not just history, but the wider world too.
We take a look at some of the songs performed by the American – , from best-selling classics such as My Baby Just Cares For Me to lesser known gems.
As with many classical prodigies, the talents of (or Eunice Kathleen , as she was born), were revealed from an early age.
She began playing the teachers. aged three, gave recitals in her early teens and went on to study with renowned
Shortly after taking a gig as a at a bar in the early ’50s, ’s soulful voice was heard by the owner and the rest, as they say, is [ ] history.
Her synthesis of classical, blues and gave her an edge and she quickly became popular along the East Coast.
Recording contracts, live performances at prestigious venues and chart success soon followed.
Critics inevitably found it difficult to pigeonhole her on account of her singular mixture of musical styles, but this did not hinder her quickly becoming a household name.
In the mid-sixties, the tone of her material was increasingly influenced by race relations in the United States, and she was an active participant in meetings.
Themes explored in this time would continue to appear in ’s songs until the end of her career.
Later life saw become a progressively more erratic performer, prone to tantrums on stage and last-minute cancellations.
She spent a quasi-nomadic existence mainly in Europe, but in the late ’80s experienced a resurgence of interest after one of her songs was used in an advert.
countless songs. We’ve selected ten which tell the story of her life, and legacy. has made an indelible mark on twentieth-century , and her idiosyncratic renditions gave prominence to
I Loves You, (released 1959)
Inspired by her hero Billie Holiday, ’s rendering of this Gershwin classic catapulted her to fame by topping the charts.
The release came at a time when the public discourse was focusing progressively on the role of America’s population in society.
’s contribution to this dialogue was this rare example of a almost exclusively sung by women.
After a Debussy-esque flourish on the , ’s voice is sensitive and melancholic.
Tastefully accompanied by Jimmy Bond on bass and Tootie Heath on drums, the storytelling is subtle yet direct.
My Baby Just Cares for Me (released 1959)
Recorded in the same session as I Loves You, , this track was relatively obscure until it was used in a perfume commercial in the ’80s.
This spotlight brought her a new audience (and a big income boost) in the twilight of her career.
Besides ‘s bluesy vocals, her solo on this number deserves mention. A perfect infusion of , classical, and blues styles.
Phrases are harmonised and played off one another in counterpoint, and different registers of the are used in the way a composer might.
Mississippi Goddam (released 1964)
This was written by in response to racially motived murders and domestic terrorism at the time.
First performed live, would go on to sing it at rallies and, more controversially at the time, on television.
The lyrics are full of anger and outrage, jarringly juxtaposed by a jaunty two-step style in the .
The profanity ‘Goddam’ (it was a more innocent time, folks!) led to the distribution of a censored version and was used as an excuse by many Southern DJs to refuse to play it.
I Put a Spell on You (released 1965)
: I Put a Spell on You
Another chart success, this recording has singing and playing with a rhythm section cushioned by strings and brass.
Like many other studio orchestrations for pop singers at the time, the focus is clearly on the voice – the light additions, which we can assume are hers, are relegated to the background, her singing dominating the mix.
On this track, saxophone solo interjecting as the builds momentum. ’s voice is bitter and taunting, a slightly histrionic
The sentiment is vitriolic and possessive, reflected in her biting tone and sharp phrasing.
Feeling Good (released 1965)
: I Put a Spell on You
Indebted yet again to the advertising industry, ’s Feeling Good received wider recognition in the ’90s than it did upon its release.
The has since been revived by pop singers, sampled in other songs and used in films, but it is the version by which remains the most iconic.
In contrast to the orchestral arrangement of the the big band tradition. ’s title track, this piece borrows more from
Although the emphasis is still very much on the voice, more room is given to the interplay of drums and brass, with the strings taking more of a back seat.
Sinnerman (released 1965)
: Pastel Blues
grew up in a religious household in , North Carolina, where she will have almost certainly come into contact with this spiritual. The tells the story of a sinner who seeks to avoid judgement on the Day of Reckoning.
Despite the length of this version exceeding ten minutes, it has endured on account of ’s skill as a musical storyteller. Since its release, it has been reworked by hip hop artists and used for television and films.
Whilst originally recorded by the great Billie Holiday, American . ‘s 1965 rendition of (almost 30 years later) is another powerful version of the powerful inspired by the
She once commented that it was “about the ugliest I have ever heard… ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.”
This version was later sampled by Kanye West on the track ‘Blood on the Leaves’ which appeared on his Yeezus.
Four Women (released 1966)
: Wild Is The Wind
Another racially themed penned by the , this track chronicles four African-American women and, as the wordplay in the title suggests, is a dedication to the plight of women in modern society.
The characters represent women in different walks of life with the common trait of descending from an enslaved people.
The builds in intensity as seems to become more tormented by the hopelessness of each life, climaxing by almost shouting the last line of the lyrics.
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (released 1967)
: Silk &
The recording of this was the consequence of several of ’s distinguishing features.
Written and performed by Billy Taylor, the melody and harmony are in the style.
It became a signature tune of the in the ’60s, and it functioned both as a and an investigation of identity and independence.
’s version is fearless and optimistic, yet tender and bittersweet.
After a intro, is gradually joined by the rest of the rhythm section and horns in a rising crescendo as her voice grows more emphatic.
Ain’t Got No, I Got Life (released 1968)
: ’Nuff Said!
This from the musical Hair was given two lives: the version includes overdubs and multi-tracking of the vocals, whereas the single features a horn section and a bubbling backbeat that wouldn’t be out of place on a Stax Records production.
It is, in fact, a conflation of two songs from the musical, and the overall narrative is a life-affirming transformation of ‘Ain’t Got No’ into ‘I Got Life’.
Another chartbuster on its release, it reaped rewards further down the line when used in adverts in the noughties.
To Be Young, Gifted and (released 1970)
composed songs which tended to explore racial discrimination, and our last example is no exception.
This composition is a homage to playwright friend Lorraine Hansberry, the first female to have a play on Broadway.
Live in New York City, precedes the performance with a spoken dedication to Hansberry.
The melody starts and stops, surprising us into attention, and delivers a kind of sermon over a humming choir. Full of asymmetrical phrases and exciting drum fills, there is even a false ending to energise the audience.
Songs like this elevate from mere popular musician to zeitgeist . Her cultural significance as an activist as well as consummate musician is well documented, and her unique blend of genres and approaches places her firmly above her peers.
After her death in 2003, continued to reach new audiences and her interpretations are often the definitive and best-known.
This list is only the beginning, so we encourage the reader to have a deep dive into her catalogue! You can of course find her on her our list of the best female jazz singers of all time too.
If you haven’t already, don’t forget to check out the 2015 documentary What Happened, , which chronicles her life and career.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!