Almost since music became something we just listened to for enjoyment, we have been graced by the Alto. They are not singers who only sit in one genre.
So, I decided to take an in-depth look at the most famous Alto singers of all time. Those that have made a lasting impact. And we will find them in Blues, Country, Rock, Pop, and just about everywhere.
What Is An Alto?
It is what you might describe as a “middle of the road” voice, and altos are usually females. In Italian, “Alto” means “high.” But that is when it is referring to a male voice, sitting one higher than a tenor. For the ladies, however, it is something different. Female voices are:
- Contralto – the lowest.
- Alto – the middle range.
- Soprano – normally thought of as the highest.
In reality, under accepted standards, the Alto is often the lowest female voice. You will get some who can go down to Contralto, like British Jazz singer Cleo Laine. And conversely, you will get some you can go up higher than Soprano.
So, who are the most famous singers in the Alto range? Let’s take a look at some.
Top 11 Most Famous Alto Singers Of All Time
Cher was born in California but had a troubled home life that involved a lot of moving from place to place. At 16, she dropped out of school, determined to make a career in music. A friend at the time said Cher wouldn’t hesitate to go up to people who she thought might help her achieve that.
One of those people was Sonny Bono…
He recognized her latent ability and introduced her to Phil Spector, who he was working for at the time. It is not commonly known that Spector used Cher’s voice on some great tracks, including “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes, and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by The Righteous Brothers.
Sonny wanted her to be a solo performer. But she suffered from stage fright back then, so he joined her on stage. I suppose you could say the rest is history. There were singles before “I Got You Babe,” but this was the one that made them and her.
It seems their homeland wasn’t so sure about them. So, on the advice of The Rolling Stones, they went to England in 1965. Overnight, they became “music heroes” to some.
But not necessarily for their songs…
They were thrown out of the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane because of what they were wearing. That was all over the newspapers, and the Brits love a bit of rebellion from time to time. The single went to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
There isn’t room to give her full story…
But, over the next few years, there were divorces, a loss of popularity, and a series of profile reinventions. And then health problems, films, and Sonny’s death some years after their divorce. She was the ultimate survivor.
Cher became respected for her philanthropic efforts, which, unlike many, were not performed for publicity. But she was able to keep churning out huge records and keeping up with what was going on. Songs like “Believe’’ and “If I Could Turn Back Time” come to mind.
She has proven over and over what you can achieve if you are willing to fight for it. Helped, of course, by a great alto voice.
Born in Ohio, Tracy Chapman had quite a tough upbringing. But, like so many others, she found an outlet through music. Her mother bought her a ukulele when she was very young, and by the age of 8, she was writing her own songs.
Tracy got herself through college and graduated in Anthropology and African Studies. It may be those studies that developed a major desire in her to work for Human Rights. And she travels the world pursuing those causes.
Her musical breakthrough came though in 1989 with the release of her first album called, Tracy Chapman. From that album came the first of the songs she has become known for, “Fast Car.”
A Personal Influence…
Let me tell you a little story. Not too many years ago, I was very unhappy with the life where I was living for many reasons, and I was thinking about emigrating. Plus, I had just been on holiday to my preferred destination to “test the water.”
Upon my return, I sat in a coffee shop, unsure of what to do, and the song came over the sound system. I sat and listened, and then the line that became the deciding influence, “We’ve got to make a decision – Leave tonight or live and die this way.”
I went out and booked my single ticket to a new life. Cheers, Tracy!
The important thing about her, though, is her voice. Quite deep and meaningful, almost soulful and full of a natural sincerity. Her guitar playing is more than adequate for what she sings, and she has become an important alto singer and songwriter in today’s world.
To England now and one of the great jazz alto singers from that side of the Atlantic. Cleo Laine, or Lady Dankworth as she is now known, was blessed with an incredible vocal range.
It took her into the depths of contralto, to the top end of the alto range, and even beyond. She has a range of over three, nearly four octaves that takes her to a ‘G’ above ‘high C.’
Cleo was married to jazzman Johnny Dankworth. They were two of the people that kept jazz alive in the UK after the arrival of The Beatles and the rest.
She received endless accolades throughout her career…
Both with her husband and as a solo act. It prompted the music writer for the Sunday Times, a paper not prone to exaggeration, to call her “the best singer in the world.” Can’t argue with that.
Her rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” is a clear demonstration of how good she was. She teamed up with Ray Charles to perform “Porgy & Bess.” And she had a week in concert with Frank Sinatra at the Royal Albert Hall in London. She also collaborated with Duke Ellington for the album Solitude.
Her husband John is long gone now, and she lives quietly West of London well into her nineties. To this day, she is considered one of the most famous alto singers of all time.
These days, singing seems to be only a part of what she does. She appeared initially as part of a family group, The Braxtons. Her solo career brought her endless success with her soulful alto and contralto tone. One of the best songs she recorded was “Unbreak My Heart.”
A Canadian singer who was labeled as a Country artist initially. But, these days, she has crossed genres to include Pop and even a bit of Rock n Roll. She has the voice to be able to do that.
Possibly her most well-known album is Come On Over. From that album came several great tracks, and “Black Eyes, Blue Tears” is just one.
Shania became a champion for women and for preventing physical abuse, which is what this song is all about. She wrote “Black Eyes, Blue Tears,” and it became somewhat of an anthem against violence toward women.
Can’t have a list of the most famous alto singers of all time without including Tina. There isn’t much you can add to what has already been said. I caught her show at Wembley in 1996 when she was closer to 60 than 50 years old.
Staggering is all you could call it…
Not many 30-year-olds could have kept up with her that night. She was a force of nature. But she also had a great voice to go with the act. And, for decades, she has given us great music.
The “Queen of Rock and Roll,” well into her 80s, has retired now. I think we can let her have a little rest. But she has left us with a catalog of music that is beyond anything you are going to get today.
Pick just one? Almost impossible. “Simply the Best” may not be her best ever, but it is a tribute to her.
Carole King is regarded by many as one of the most important songwriters of the 60s and 70s. Her achievements as a songwriter are nothing short of staggering. Therefore, she is one of the most famous alto singers of all time.
In the UK, she was the most successful female songwriter on the singles chart between 1962 and 2005, with 61 songs. Only two chaps from Liverpool whose names escape me beat that.
In America, having written or co-written 118 hits, she is the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th Century.
And that’s not an exaggeration…
Carole arrived on the scene with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, writing for other artists. She wrote songs for everyone that could sing, including “The Locomotion” for their babysitter, Little Eva.
Other classic songs followed “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” which she recorded herself. “Take Good Care Of My Baby” for Bobby Vee, and “One Fine Day” for The Chiffons, There were dozens of others, but I think you get the picture.
It was with the album, Tapestry that she struck gold. Her second solo album was a masterful piece of writing and performing. And it showcased her remarkable alto voice. Not classical in its tone at all. Just heartfelt and meaningful.
Tapestry is still one of the greatest albums ever, in my opinion, bar none. From that album came “Home Again.” With that song, you can hear the depth of feeling that an alto can achieve.
The world of Pop music got a huge shake-up with the Eurovision Song contest in Brighton, England, in 1974. Abba won it that year, but before then, we had a duo that, in many ways, was almost as good.
A keyboard player who wrote great songs…
And his drumming sister with a voice that gave you shivers. In Pop music at the time, there was no better voice, anywhere. The drums had to take a back seat to let it shine through, even though she struggled with being out front.
She was one of the most amazing alto singers ever, and she could easily cross down into contralto. And she used it to full effect. In 1970, they achieved the first of numerous successes with “(They Long To Be) Close To You” as well as “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
Both were taken from their first album, and in 1972 possibly the biggest hit, “Goodbye To Love.”
In the UK…
The Carpenters are listed as the seventh biggest-selling artist ever and worldwide sold over 100 million records. They toured extensively during the 70s, but it was clear the strain was beginning to take a toll. Richard insisted they take a break in 1979 as he had noticed a decline in Karen’s health.
She died of heart failure brought on by anorexia in 1983. The voice of the 70s from any genre was gone. But, they left us with songs that still, as I said, give you a chill to hear.
Another giant of the vocal world, Etta James, was one of the greatest female alto singers of the last 50 years. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles and was another to suffer a traumatic childhood.
Despite the hardships, she became what some have referred to as one of the voices of the century. She earned herself the nickname the “Matriarch of the Blues.” Her voice was gritty and powerful, and when she sang, you listened. She took vocals to a higher level.
Crossing Genres With Ease
While her voice was suited to a harder Blues sound, she could cross genre borders with ease. She was at home singing R&B, Gospel, Soul, Jazz, and Country. She is best known for bridging the gap that existed between R&B and Rock n Roll.
In 1960, Etta released the album, At Last, to critical acclaim. And her version of “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” is legendary.
As with some of her contemporaries…
She struggled with substance abuse and was imprisoned for a while. Etta spent half of her life struggling with legal issues but always seemed able to make a comeback.
One such comeback brought us her 1980 album, Seven Year Itch. Without question, one of the great alto Blues and R&B singers. She did not take any prisoners with her style.
What can you say about the “First Lady of Song,” the “Queen of Jazz,” that hasn’t already been written? She experienced what can only be described as a “more than interesting” adolescence. Yet she matured into one of the greatest jazz singers we have seen or are ever likely to see.
She is well-known in every aspect of music…
But, it is her collaborations with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and, of course, the 1940 recordings with The Ink Spots for which she is most remembered.
Her scat singing was undeniably the very best, and to the casual observer, defies the laws of everything vocal. She sang into her later years and performed with Count Basie at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1990.
Ella suffered from diabetes which caused other complications. As a result, she had to have both legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She died of a stroke in 1996.
But she left a fantastic catalog of work…
And in that work were some very special moments. One of her great recordings with The Duke made “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” a jazz standard.
Stevie Wonder wrote a song where he referred to her called “Sir Duke.” Talking about Ellington’s band, he says, “And with a voice like Ella’s ring out, there’s no way the man can lose.” Quite right.
Dionne Warwick was a unique alto singer in many ways. It may surprise you to know that during the Rock era of the 60s and 70s, she sold more records than most. She was the biggest-selling solo singer. And she didn’t release any Rock songs.
Raised in a musical family in New Jersey, she studied music and got to work with a young songwriter as a demo singer. He was Burt Bacharach, and that was the start of a working relationship that produced some memorable music.
Her first release from 1962 was “Don’t Make Me Over“…
It reached #21 in America. The songs of Bacharach and Hal David filled her catalog as she released some of their most memorable work.
“Trains and Boats and Planes,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” and “Walk On By” from 1964 reached #9 in the UK and #6 in America. However, my favorite was always “A House Is Not A Home.”
She sold over 100 million records in a glittering career that still goes on today. The voice was special. She had a range of D3 – A5, which is just over two and a half octaves, and reached down to contralto levels. One of the great alto voices.
To close this list of the most famous Alto voices, let’s pay tribute to one of the greats. Some might say the quiet heart of the third incarnation of Fleetwood Mac.
You might say she was in the band when they were at their best in the late 60s. She joined her husband John in Fleetwood Mac in 1969 and went through it all. But, the departure of Peter Green left a hole that could not be filled.
Good as Lindsey Buckingham was, he wasn’t in the same league as “Greenie.” You couldn’t expect him to be because no one was. “Mac” largely left their Blues roots behind and went Pop.
Her Blues Roots…
Before Mac and John, she was Christine Perfect in the band Chicken Shack. Another great British Blues guitarist of the time, Stan Webb, led them, and they weren’t that far behind Mac’s popularity in London. Tracks like “I’d Rather Go Blind” demonstrated how good they were, and she was.
It was a great fit when she joined Mac. After a few years, we find her writing some of the songs that defined the “new” band. From what I always thought was the best of the later albums, Fleetwood Mac, she contributed four of the eleven songs. On Rumours, she had another four compositions.
One of those songs was “Songbird.” This highlighted her great talents vocally and with her songwriting.
Stevie Nicks always seems to get all the adulation…
Usually from American fans, and most of it is undeserved, in my view. Yes, she had a better stage presence, but Christine McVie wasn’t interested in all that. McVie had the better, cleaner sounding voice, and as I said at the beginning, was the heart of Mac. The alto heart. For a time, Mac was the most famous band in the world, known for their internal problems as much as the music.
And, at the heart of the band was Christine McVie. That, in my view, justifies her inclusion here. So, let’s close out with a bit of fun dedicated to the “Lassie From Lancashire.” I think we will miss her.
Looking for More Great Singers?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Female Singers, the Most Famous Blues Singers, and the Top Country Singers with Deep Voices for more awesome singers.
Of course, you’ll want to hear them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Bass Earbuds, and the Best Headphones Under $200 you can buy in 2023.
And don’t miss our comprehensive guides on the Best Pop Songs For Altos, the Best Audition Songs for Altos, and the Best Karaoke Songs for Alto Females if you want great songs for alto singers.
Most Famous Alto Singers Of All Time – Final Thoughts
Rich, warm, and sultry. That is how the female Alto voice can be described. There is something special about the tone and often the depth that creates a very special atmosphere for a song.
All of these incredible alto singers had those three attributes in their voices. Maybe that is why they, and the songs they sang, have stood the test of time and are played over and over again.
Until next time, happy listening.