Rhode Island female musicians have contributed significantly to the national music scene over the years. This Women’s History Month, we’re introducing you to a few RI artists who’ve stood out among their peers. For more, check out the videos below and visit the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame website here.
Eileen Farrell (1920-2002) was an opera singer and member of the CBS radio chorus. She sang classical and popular music in a career that spanned over 60 years. Born in Providence in 1920, Farrell rose to prominence in the 1960’s when she sang for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She also sang in Louis Armstrong’s band and appeared on The Carol Burnett Show as well as the Ed Sullivan Show numerous times. In 1960, she recorded a jazz album, “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues” for Columbia Records.
Born in Maryland, Cheryl Wheeler began her music career in Rhode Island in 1976. Based in Newport, she recorded several albums for North Star Records in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Dan Seals took one of Wheeler’s originals, “Addicted” to #1 on the country charts in 1988. Although she has since moved out of state, Wheeler continues to perform and plays in the area frequently.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Claudia Lennear was the leading background singer for many legendary classic rock acts. After attending Hope High School, she began her career in 1967 singing and dancing as one of the Ikettes, alongside Ike and Tina Turner. She later sang live and on numerous recordings with the likes of Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, and Stephen Stills. Lennear appeared in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh and was recently featured in the 2013 Academy Award-winning film, 20 Feet From Stardom. The 2019 inductee in the RI Music Hall of Fame released her own album, Phew, in 1973 – it’s an underappreciated gem of a release! Look it up!
Step-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly founded Throwing Muses in 1981 in Newport. The band was on the cutting edge of the “new wave” movement, garnering international attention while becoming one of the top “alternative” bands of the era. Donelly went on to form Belly in 1991, the only Rhode Island band to ever appear “on the cover of the Rolling Stone.” The Muses have reunited occasionally in recent years and in 2020 released a new album Sun Racket.
Widely considered the great singer of her generation, Matilda Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933), was a late 19th-century concert singer. She began her career in Providence after her family moved here in 1876. With a gifted voice, she became known as “the Black Patti,” after the Italian diva Adelina Patti. Jones performed in Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, and before royalty in Europe.
Brenda Bennett is best known as a member of Prince’s original background group Vanity 6. Her career began in Rhode Island in the 1970’s playing and singing in various bands including Ken Lyon and the Tombstone Band. In 1980, she joined Prince, where she was known for her “tough-girl, cigarette-smoking” persona. Bennett was inducted into the RI Music Hall of Fame in 2015. She continues to record and play in the area.
Born in Providence, jazz singer Carol Sloane grew up in Smithfield. She began her career as a vocalist in the Larry Elgart Orchestra. In 1961, she performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. Sloane has played nightclubs and concert halls throughout the region for over 60 years. Her vocal style has been compared to Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald.