We were excited to see the conversation our female punk icons post generated, finding relief in the fact that while Rolling Stone may have overlooked these women, our readers certainly haven’t. Unfortunately, punk rock isn’t the only genre in which women have been notoriously sidelined — often, a funk album’s only female presence is its scantily clad cover model. When pressed, true funk aficionados can name a few women who brought the funk but, more often than not, Chaka Khan is the only artist who gets credit for her contribution. While we love our Chaka, there are plenty of other ladies who tore the roof off the sucker, so we’ve compiled a list of 10 women who should be in every funk fan’s collection. As always, this is in no way a definitive list, merely a launching pad for further investigation.
There is a good reason why even the novice funk listener knows Chaka Khan — with a voice that seems to erupt out of her and a confidence that turns each song into a exclamation, Khan has been featured on some of the most recognizable songs in the genre. When serving as the frontwoman for Grammy award-winning Rufus, she pushed funk into the mainstream, releasing six platinum-selling albums and multiple crossover hits. In 1978, Khan embarked on a successful solo career which continues to this day.
Jazz artist Miles Davis is widely hailed as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century — Betty Davis is the woman who influenced him. Born Betty Mabry, the former model was Davis’s second wife. While the couple divorced after only a year, he has credited her for inspiring the musical exploration of Bitches Brew and later albums. Betty Davis was responsible for introducing her husband to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, which led to the birth of jazz fusion. She was also an impressive artist in her own right — her four studio albums have become highly regarded in the funk community and her openly sexual lyrics, while controversial, helped to shatter the genre’s sexual double standard.
You can’t discuss funk music without mentioning George Clinton, even when composing a list of funk music’s greatest female artists. In the late ’70s, P-Funk’s principal architect decided to construct a girl-group, hoping to create the female version of Parliament. Parlet was composed of former Parliament back-up singers Jeanette Washington, Debbie Wright, and Mallia Franklin — each woman went on to assume an essential role in funk’s history. Franklin, the force behind Clinton and Bootsy Collins’s fateful meeting and the self-proclaimed “Queen of Funk” has had a noteworthy solo career, collaborating with numerous artists from Prince to Snoop Dogg.
Funk music is an amalgamation of various influences and genres, as Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers demonstrate. During its early days, the group recorded acoustic gospel music, appearing in churches across the Chicago area. Then, in 1968, the Staple Singers signed with Stax Records and assumed a far funkier sound. The band’s transition was aided by the vocal prowess of lead-singer Mavis Staples — her rich contralto is a fine match for the grit and swagger of funk. Today, she continues to perform, and her voice has been sampled by numerous hip-hop artists.
Like George Clinton, James Brown is responsible for introducing the funk world to many of its finest female voices. During the ’60s and ’70s, he had the most extravagant live show in music, and The James Brown Revue employed dozens of women singers, many of whom went on to record as solo artists. Brown acknowledged in his biography that Vicki Anderson was the best singer he ever had and probably the best he ever witnessed. She performed with him for six years and he produced a number of her singles, including “Message From the Soul Sisters,” a bold feminist anthem.
Brides of Funkenstein
Originally composed of singers Dawn Silva and Lynn Mabry, the Brides of Funkenstein are another off-shoot of George Clinton’s P-Funk collective. After performing as back-up singers for Sly Stone, Silva and Mabry joined Parliament-Funkadelic and, in a reference to the band’s vast lore, were named the Brides of Funkenstein. The girl group’s debut album, Funk or Walk, was a massive success, selling over 300,000 copies in its first week of release. Over the years, the Brides’ line-up changed, yet Silva and Mabry briefly reunited to open for Grace Jones, using the moniker the New Wave Brides. Since their days as in the band, Mabry has toured with the Talking Heads and Silva has recorded with the Gap Band and Ice Cube.
Patrice Rushen has numerous outstanding accomplishments under her belt, namely in composing and musical directing; in the music world, she is known for her groove-worthy fusions of funk, jazz, and disco. Her biggest hit is the Grammy-winning “Forget Me Nots,” which has been sampled by several artists, including Will Smith. Rushen deserves recognition for numerous reasons — not only is she responsible for several top 10 hits, but she also wrote and produced many of her own songs, a notable achievement at a time when most women funk artists performed music written and recorded by male musicians.
Fearlessly explicit and shamelessly funky, Millie Jackson’s music defied all stereotypes about female musicians. Her songs are as raunchy and funny as any track you could find on an Ohio Players or Parliament album. With a number of successful records and top-charting singles to her name, she proved that a female funk musician didn’t have to play by anyone else’s rules or play anyone else’s music in order to be successful. Jackson is known for her songs’ long spoken word sections and is often cited as a major influence by female rappers. Along with her remarkable solo career, she is responsible for forming the group Facts of Life and also recorded an album with funk innovator Isaac Hayes.
What Sharon Jones lacks in music industry experience, she more than makes up for in raw, unadulterated soul. Having recently experienced breakthrough success, Jones spent many years working as a corrections officer before beginning a career as a back-up singer. After signing with Daptone Records, she released an album with the Dap-Kings (who famously worked with Amy Winehouse), a combination that was met with critical acclaim. Jones and the Dap-Kings, who are at the center of the current funk and soul revival movement, effectively capture the essence and passion of funk music at its height — Jones is a bold and powerful frontwoman, commanding the stage like the most famous divas of the past.
Bernadette Cooper is a funk polymath, responsible for the writing, engineering, and production of many of her own hit songs. Cooper began her musical career by founding the all-female funk band Klymaxx. The group scored multiple chart hits throughout the 1980s, including “I Miss You,” which became the third-biggest-selling song of 1986. After leaving the band, Cooper formed a second successful funk project, Madame X. Today, she works as an EMI writer and producer and continues to tour with the recently reunited Klymaxx.