Female Singing Sensations Past and Present

Rosemond Mountain by C. Turner. After an engraving by John James Masquerier

In this blogpost I shall be discussing six female singers, past and present, who have contributed hugely to the world of music.

I had never heard of this lady before but Rosemond Mountain nee Wilkinson was said to be the “best female singer on the English stage” from the nineteenth century.

Born in 1768 into a family of performers, her long association with Covent Garden started in 1786 and continued until 1798. During this time, she married John Mountain. She took on major singing roles such as Lucinda in Love in a village, and Polly in the Beggar’s Opera. She died in London at her home in 1841.

I read about Jenny Lind at secondary school in the library – I was often hanging about in there at break time!

Jenny Lind by Eduard Magnus, 1862.

Johanna Maria “Jenny” Lind was a Swedish opera singer, a soprano, who was often called the “Swedish Nightingale”. She was born in Stockholm in Sweden in 1820. Her mother was a teacher, and her father a bookkeeper. When Lind was 9 her singing was overheard, and this led to her gaining admission to the acting school of the Royal Dramatic Theatre. She began to sing onstage when she was 10 years old.

Lind toured Denmark in 1843 and there Hans Christian Andersen fell in love with her. She couldn’t return his feelings but they remained friends. She had great success in Britain and Germany. It seems that Queen Victoria was a fan as she attended all of Lind’s debut performances in London.

Early in 1849 Lind announced her retirement from opera. In the same year P.T.Barnum, the American showman, approached Lind and proposed that she travel the United States for a year. Lind realized that this venture would be very lucrative and the charities she supported would benefit. The tour was a great success and Lind and her husband returned to Europe in 1852. From 1855 she lived in London where she died in 1887.

The next singer just has to be Edith Piaf. Who can not be moved when listening to Non, je ne regrette rien?

Piaf was born in 1915 in Paris. One interesting fact about her, she is named after British nurse Edith Cavell who was executed 2 months before Piaf’s birth. Her real name was Edith Giovanna Gassion. Sadly, Piaf’s mother abandoned her at birth, and she was brought up by her grandmother who ran a brothel in Normandy. The sex workers helped look after Piaf. Piaf earned her living singing in the streets before being discovered by a nightclub owner.

During the war she was France’s most popular entertainer. Post-war she toured South America, Europe and the United States. This diminutive woman who was under 5 feet could certainly move an audience with her songs about love and loss.

Edith Piaf regretting nothing

Vera Lynn was born in East Ham in 1917. She became hugely popular during WWII and became known as The Forces Sweetheart. She started performing at the age of 7 and when she was 11 gave up school to start touring. She became a popular radio performer and released her first solo record in 1936. Dame Vera was best known for her 1939 hit We’ll meet again. During the early stages of the war, she was Britain’s most popular singer. She toured the world to entertain the troops during the war as part of the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA), travelling as far as India and Burma.

She continued to sing after the war, and in 1976 was made a Dame. She died in June 2020 at the age of 103.

Eartha Mae Kitt was an American singer, actress and activist. She was born in 1927, in South Carolina, United States, Kitt’s mother was of Cherokee-African heritage. Her father was white, thought his full identity was never known, Eartha had understood that he was the son of the owner of the cotton plantation where she had been born, and that she was most likely conceived as a result of rape.

Rejected by her mother and step-father, and sent to live with a relative, where she was abused, her childhood could have been a crushing experience, but aged 16 Eartha began her career as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company. With them she toured the world, and with her distinctive, rather sexy voice she became a success with songs like Santa Baby and I want to be evil.

In 1961 Eartha gave birth to a daughter Kitt, to whom she was devoted.

In the 1960’s Eartha Kitt became a big star, when she played Catwoman in the popular TV series Batman. But in 1968 at a lunch in the White House, her outspoken comments on the Vietnam War and racial inequality in the United States, upset the Johnson administration and her career seemed to be at an end, when bookings disappeared overnight. It was later revealed that after the incident at the White House, the CIA had been keeping a close watch on her. She later made a triumphant comeback winning a Tony on her return to Broadway.

Madonna Louise Ciccone was born on August 16, 1958, in Michigan to Catholic parents. Her father’s parents were Italian immigrants. Madonna was one of 6 children, and was named after her mother, who died when Madonna was just 5. She started work as a dancer, before she joined her then boyfriend’s band and became the lead singer. In 1981 she went solo and the hits came thick and fast. She also appeared in films, I was moved by her performance as Eva Peron in the film, Evita in 1997.

Madonna has courted controversy a few times. Her pop video Like a prayer caused Pope John Paul II to urge fans not to attend her concerts in Italy. Controversy apart, I think the secret of her success is the ability to reinvent herself. Her latest project is Madame X.

It seems that Madonna will keep on shocking us all and producing great music until she’s 100. And why not?


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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