The 13 All-Time-Best Philly Singers
Are we lucky or what? Philadelphia has always been a city of song, from the days when the Founding Fathers hoisted mugs in its taverns to today, when local lass Taylor Swift is at the top of the pop charts—though not on this list. Because to be on this list, you have to have one of the finest singing voices ever to have let freedom ring in this town. Here, in ascending order, are the 13 best singers who’ve called Philly home.
Bobby Rydell (1942-)
Go ahead and laugh. But Philly has long been a hotbed of boy bands, and Rydell scored 34 Top 40 hits in the course of his long career (and also starred with Ann-Margret in the film version of Bye Bye Birdie), making him one of the top rock-and-rollers of the ’60s. So how could we Forget Him?
The Doylestown native, born Alecia Beth Moore, has been a staple on the pop charts since her first solo album, Can’t Take Me Home, went double platinum in 2000. From the bawdy “Raise Your Glass” to the bitter “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” to the yearning “Please Don’t Leave Me,” she exudes fierce, funny feminism in the rosiest way. Because she’s a pop star, the power and range of her voice sometimes get overlooked; Kelly Clarkson called it “the best of our generation.”
Daryl Hall (1946-)
The king of blue-eyed soul, born in Pottstown and a Temple alum, has one of the smoothest sets of pipes in Christendom. Since 1973’s “She’s Gone” made us believers, he’s closed out Live Aid, worked with everyone from Diana Ross to Dave Stewart, written or co-written 11 number one hits, and kept us entertained with TV shows, podcasts and general fabulousness. He and musical partner John Oates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.
Teddy Pendergrass (1950-2010)
Pendergrass probably talked more ladies into giving it up than any other Philadelphian ever. The great R&B seducer was once a member of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes; he was given the lead in the Gamble & Huff number “I Miss You” in 1972, and the follow-up hit, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” cemented his fame. In his solo career, he was forever urging his partners to “Close the Door” and “Turn Off the Lights,” not to mention “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose.” Left a quadriplegic by a car accident on Lincoln Drive in 1982, he managed a comeback after an emotional performance at Live Aid in 1985, scoring two subsequent Grammy noms for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. He died of respiratory problems following an operation for colon cancer.
Clara Ward (1924-1973)
Just try not to clap along when you listen. The gospel group that became the Clara Ward Singers was founded by Ward’s mother and debuted in 1943 when Philly hosted the National Baptist Convention; members then traveled across the country in a Cadillac, appeared on national TV, and began recording. Though some folks were scandalized by the Ward Singers’ glitzy outfits, wigs and jewelry, the highly popular group influenced generations of younger performers. Ward’s group toured Vietnam to sing for soldiers in 1968, made frequent television appearances, and sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra; she also reportedly had a long-term romance with Aretha Franklin’s preacher father. Here’s hoping nobody holds that against her “When the Gates Swing Open.”
Ethel Waters (1896-1977)
Born in Chester following her teenaged mother’s rape, Waters moved frequently during a miserable childhood and married at 13. After leaving her husband to work as a maid in a Philly hotel, she snagged a contract to appear at a Baltimore theater by singing at a party in a nightclub when she was 17. She joined the black vaudeville circuit, moved to Harlem and sang in jazz clubs there, and signed with Black Swan Records. She starred on Broadway, sang with Duke Ellington and a very young Sammy Davis Jr., was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Elia Kazan’s Pinky, was the first black actress to star in a TV series (the 1950s’ Beulah), and throughout her six-decade career was a frequent performer at the Cotton Club, where in 1933 she debuted Stormy Weather.
Billy Paul (1934-)
Questlove (who should know) ranks North Philly-born Paul up there with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as a singer and has called him “one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution ’60s civil rights music.” Paul was singing in a club off South Street when Kenny Gamble heard and signed him. He had a Grammy-winning 1972 Gamble and Huff hit with “Me and Mrs. Jones”; ventured into psychedelic soul with 1973’s War of the Gods; spliced speeches by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X into his cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let ’Em In”; and had a 1975 hit, “Let’s Make a Baby,” that caused a social uproar. (Jesse Jackson wanted it banned.) Through it all, his voice was what he once said he aimed for: “silky, like butter.”
Jill Scott (1972-)
Is there something in the water that’s made Philadelphia the hometown of so many divas? This North Philly-raised Girls’ High grad was planning on a teaching career after Temple before she was discovered by Questlove at a poetry reading. The New York Times has lauded her “forceful” voice and called her “an expert dramatist, capable of sweetening up or holding back.” “Jilly from Philly” is also an actress who has appeared in films and on TV and had her own BBC/HBO series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Nominated for 13 Grammies, she won (in three separate categories) in 2005 and 2008 and in 2007 for her gorgeous recording with George Benson and Al Jarreau of “God Bless the Child.”
Patti LaBelle (1944-)
We were scared not to put her on this list. No, no, just kidding. You’ve got to be pretty great for Aretha Franklin to throw you shade at the White House, right? Patricia Louise Holte-Edwards has been a show-biz marvel for half a century. Raised with her three sisters by a single mom after her parents’ divorce, she sang her first church solo at age 12 and never looked back. Her “Lady Marmelade” (1974) was one of the first disco hits, but she’s been inducted into a ton of halls of fame; you’d need three hands to count her Emmy noms. When she sings, the world listens.
Russell Thompkins Jr. (1951-)
He started his career by winning a talent contest at Ben Franklin High, and producer Thom Bell built the Stylistics around Thompkins’s sweet, high voice. “The falsetto was rarely so cool as when Thompkins employed it,” the New Yorker once said. Between 1971 and 1974, the quintet had 10 Top 10 R&B hits and five Top 10 pop hits, all ballads. Thompkins is still recording with the New Stylistics and continues to tour; he’s especially popular in England, where the Stylistics had 17 UK Top 40 singles. Betcha By Golly he wows you, even in a pastel tux.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Eleanora Fagen was born in Philly after her teenaged mom was thrown out of her Baltimore home by her parents for becoming pregnant. Eleanora dropped out of school at age 11, survived an attempted rape, and was running errands in a brothel at age 12. She became a prostitute in Harlem at the same house of ill repute as her mother, got busted, and went to prison before beginning her singing career. She started recording at age 18 with Benny Goodman; producer John Hammond said she was the first girl singer he’d ever heard “who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.” She chose the name “Billie Holiday” herself; saxophonist Lester Young first nicknamed her “Lady Day.” She sang with the big bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw and was soon an established recording artist. Her 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” furthered her popularity, though she experienced myriad indignities while touring because of her race. She co-wrote “God Bless the Child” after a fight with her mother, who’d opened a restaurant with Billie’s earnings but refused to pay Billie back. After becoming addicted to heroin, she spent most of her money on the drug and she went to prison again, briefly, for possession before emerging in 1948 for a triumphant sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. More drug and legal trouble followed, as did her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. She died of cirrhosis of the liver in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital. A year before her death, Frank Sinatra told Ebony magazine, “Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years.” She was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993)
One of the most famous American singers of all time, Anderson made history after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing to an integrated audience at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall in 1939. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt subsequently arranged an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that drew 75,000 attendees and was broadcast on the radio to millions more. Anderson went on to become the first black artist to perform at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, in 1955. (She sang Verdi.) Her father sold coal at Reading Terminal Market; her mother had been a schoolteacher in Virginia but couldn’t teach in Philadelphia because of rules that required black teachers to have finished college. The family was active in South Philly’s Union Baptist Church, which eventually raised money to pay for her singing lessons and her education at South Philly High. She sang for numerous presidents, was wildly popular in Europe, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many other honors. She’s buried in Collingdale’s Eden Cemetery—not such a long way from home.
Mario Lanza (1921-1959)
His was the voice that made your great-grandmother weep when she heard it. Born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza to Italian immigrant parents in South Philly, Lanza was attracting attention because of his voice by the age of 16. His performances in productions of the YMCA Opera Company came to the attention of Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussivitzky, who provided him with a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and told him, “Yours is a voice such as is heard once in a hundred years.” Don’t believe it? Just listen. His successful operatic career was interrupted by a call from Hollywood, which loved his glorious tenor voice and best-man looks; he had a successful film career, including a turn as Enrico Caruso in 1951’s The Great Caruso, before weight problems and a crisis of self-confidence bedeviled him. He recovered enough for a triumphal tour of Europe (he performed for Queen Elizabeth of England) and was working on a return to the world of opera when he died of a heart attack at age 38 following a controversial weight-loss regimen in Rome. South Philly has never forgotten its native son; the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum still provides scholarships to young musicians to honor his memory.
Check out our playlist of Philly’s all-time-best singers here, or listen below: