Who was the first successful woman singer-songwriter?

Who was the first successful woman singer-songwriter?


norman lebrecht

October 11, 2011

Various people in Paris maintain it was Barbara, who was performing from 1959, and I’m inclined to endorse that.

But when did Carole King start?

And Judy Collins?

Did Billie Holiday write any of her own?

Either way, Amy Winehouse would never have been what she was without these antecedents. The JC reports today that her father Mitch is speedwriting a biography.

Amy Winehouse with her father Mitch


  • Guilherme Fontão says:

    Dear Mr. Lebrecht,
    Are you referring particularly to the first worldwide successful woman singer song-writer?…
    Perhaps the first non-worlwide was the Brazilian singer song-writer Dolores Duran (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6HWZ_wa_l4), or maybe Maysa Matarazzo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytNpEHoq7Pk or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgkEb_EHaP0&feature=related) or, who knows, Dalva de Oliveira (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhHKTBOsBPI).
    Best regards,

  • Derek Warby says:

    Billie Holliday only ever CO-wrote some of the songs she made famous (“God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain”, “Fine and Mellow” and “Lady Sings the Blues”). As far as the ‘popular’ singer-songwriter genre goes, my vote would be for Judy Collins, who had her first self-penned LP issued in 1961.

    • Ken J. says:

      Echoing Julie: Judy Collins’ early 1960s work starts out mostly in traditional song, with some covers from the then-current folk & protest singers. She starts to cross over into art/pop songs written outside the folk field around 1965, and in the late 1960s a few Collins’-written songs start to appear on albums. But songs written by Judy Collins don’t dominate her recordings until 1973’s “True Stories”.

      So by my definition, she’s a folksinger and an interpreter, but not a singer-songwriter until the 1970s. (And I do love her work, but she’s much better as an interpreter than as a writer.)

  • Julie says:

    I love Judy Collins but most of the songs she’s known for are written by others. Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Leonard Cohen. In fact the album you show as an example is a Joni Mitchell Song…yay Joni!

  • How about Josephine Baker ( June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975)?

  • jeff g. says:

    Peggy Lee?

  • Paul H. Muller says:

    First? Who knows…

    But the best – it can only be Joni Mitchell.

  • La Bolduc, from Québec, could also be considered one of the first women signer/songwriter, with more than 40 original records between 1929 and 1939. She had a great influence on other Quebec singers/songwriters like Gilles Vigneault and Félix Leclerc (which himself has been a spark for Brassens, Brel and Barbara in France).

    Wikipedia has, are we surprised (!), some additional infos : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Bolduc

  • Graham Clarke says:

    Kay Thompson perhaps

    ……MGM Records issued the one and only complete album of songs by Thompson in 1954. In February 1956, Thompson wrote and recorded the song “Eloise” at Cadence Records with an orchestra conducted by Archie Bleyer. The song debuted on March 10, 1956, and became a Top 40 hit, selling over 100,000 copies…….

  • jeff g. says:

    Last night Turner showed Johnny Guitar and I started watching. Title song written by Peggy Lee and Victor Young, song by Peggy Lee, 1954: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeCWuN0dc5w
    According to the Peggy Lee website: Peggy’s first big songwriting hits, in 1946, were “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “It’s a Good Day,” which was later used as one of the opening numbers in the Susan Hayward film, With a Song in My Heart, about the life of singer Jane Froman. Then in 1948 she wrote “Mañana,” which topped the charts for nine weeks and was Capitol Records’ biggest hit single by a singer-songwriter until the Beatles (and then it took four men!).