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Women Who Rock: Greatest Breakthrough Moments

The achievements that changed everything, from Bessie Smith to Adele

The century-long history of pop music is full of breakthrough moments for female performers. Sometimes it’s a moment in the spotlight, like the emergence of mighty voices like Aretha Franklin or Joni Mitchell. Sometimes it’s in the shadows, as in Mo Tucker drumming with the Velvet Underground or the Chantels getting it together in high school. Here’s a timeline of some of these breakthroughs, from Bessie Smith to Adele.

By Rob Sheffield

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The Brill Building songwriters

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

1963: The Brill Building Songwriters create a Timeless Soundtrack to American Adolescence

Working behind the scenes at 1619 Broadway, in New York, songwriters such as Carole King, Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil bang out rock & roll classics including "Da Doo Ron Ron"and "Leader of the Pack."

Janis Martin

GAB Archive

1957: Virginia Rock & Roll Hellion Janis Martin Comes Out of the Hills to Sing ‘My Boy Elvis’

 Her country-fried rockabilly sound earns her fame as the "female Elvis."

The Chantels

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1956: The Chantels Get Together in Parochial School

They meet singing in the school choir at St. Anthony of Padua, in the Bronx, and launch the girl-group sound that still rocks us today. None of these five black Catholic schoolgirls was older than 17, but lead singer Arlene Smith had a voice that could – and still can – raise the roof. Classics such as "Maybe" (written by Smith) paved the way for immortal girl gangs like the Shangri-Las, the Crystals and the Chiffons.

Wanda Jackson

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1955: Wanda Jackson Meets Elvis and Decides to Make Her Own Records

Her rockabilly classics include "Mean Mean Man," "Fujiyama Mama" and "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad."

Etta James

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1955: Etta James Cuts ‘Roll With Me, Henry’

One of the most notoriously obscene early rock hits, it's a nasty answer record to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie."

Big Mama Thornton

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1953: Big Mama Thornton Introduces ‘Hound Dog’

A songwriter, drummer and harmonica player, this blueswoman is best known for composing "Ball and Chain," later covered by Janis Joplin, and for originating Elvis' breakthrough hit, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Billie Holiday

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1939: Billie Holiday Sings ‘Strange Fruit’

Holiday first performs the song during her stand at New York's Cafe Society club. It isn't exactly standard jazz-singer fare: Lewis Allan's ballad is about lynching in the Deep South, with "strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." But, as Holiday tells her band-leader, "Some guy's brought me a hell of a damn song that I'm going to do." Her record company, Columbia, refuses to touch it, so she cuts it for the indie label Commodore – and winds up with a Top 20 hit. "Strange Fruit" remains one of Holiday's signature songs.

Mother Maybelle

1928: Sarah and Mother Maybelle Sing on the Carter Family’s ‘Wildwood Flower’

It goes on to sell a million copies and lay the foundation of country music.

Bessie Smith

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1923: Bessie Smith Releases ‘Gulf Coast Blues’

Her biggest hit sells 780,000 copies in six months and puts the blues on the map.

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