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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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Carole King

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1971 Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ defines the singer-songwriter movement

King is already a veteran when she makes her first hit album, Tapestry. As one of the legendary Brill Building songwriters, she co-wrote hits such as "The Locomotion," "Up on the Roof" and "One Fine Day." But after her marriage ends, she moves out West and makes the grown-up soft-rock autobiography Tapestry. It becomes one of the Seventies' longest-running hits, eventually selling 22 million copies and spawning the hits "I Feel the Earth Move," "So Far Away" and "It's Too Late."

Joni Mitchell

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1968 Joni Mitchell Releases Her First Album

Song to a Seagull introduces a new style of poetic songwriting that continues to be hugely influential on artists from Cat Power to Prince.

Dusty Springfield

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1968 Dusty Springfield goes to Memphis

The London beehive diva makes her American pilgrimage for the torch-pop masterpiece Dusty in Memphis.

Janis Joplin

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1967 Janis Joplin takes a piece of our heart

Janis Joplin becomes the reigning goddess of the new hippie love generation at the Monterey Pop Festival, belting the blues epic "Ball and Chain" with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. A Texas girl relocated to San Francisco, Joplin is a nobody before she comes to Monterey, but she steals the show. In the Monterey Pop movie, you can see Mama Cass in the audience shake her head and say, " Wooow " – and that says it all.

Bobbie Gentry

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1967: Bobbie Gentry Writes and Sings ‘Ode to Billie Joe’

The mysterious acoustic Southern-gothic hit holds a nation spellbound – what did they throw off that bridge, anyway?

Aretha Franklin

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1966 Aretha goes to Muscle Shoals

When Aretha Franklin heads down to the Alabama studio to cut I Never Loved a Man, she truly becomes the queen of soul. After growing up on gospel, she made her first records in the early Sixties for Columbia – mostly tame lounge jazz. But producer Jerry Wexler lets Franklin cut loose with the immortal Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, and the results earn her the name Lady Soul.

Velvet Underground

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1966: Maureen Tucker Joins Velvet Underground as the Drummer

Her backbeat in "I'm Waiting for the Man" becomes the definitive punk rhythm.

Grace Slick

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1966 Grace Slick joins Jefferson Airplane

The band turns from mellow folkies into the hard-driving psychedelic rockers of "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit."

The Honeycombs

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1964 The Honeycombs hit big on both sides of the Atlantic

They're the first band ever named after a girl drummer – and Honey's bouffant was even bigger than her bass drum.

The Ronettes

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1964: The Ronettes Tour With Opening Act the Rolling Stones

"Be My Baby" bombshell Ronnie Spector belts her way into history as one of the sultriest, grittiest rock singers ever. Her great collaboration with Joey Ramone, She Talks to Rainbows, comes out in 1999.

Cher, Sonny

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1963: Cher Meets Sonny

He's got Cher to kiss good night, she's got Sonny to hold her tight, and thus begins Cher's lifelong reign as America's most-beloved drama queen.

The Brill Building songwriters

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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

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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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