Women’s History Month: 5 Female Songwriters Behind Some of the Biggest Hits

There are those songs you know the lyrics to, but you may not know who was behind the words. Many women have worked behind the scenes for decades, writing hits for everyone from Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and beyond.

Here are five women who wrote some big hits, mostly behind the scenes over the past five decades or more.

Cindy Walker

Harlan Howard, who penned more than 4,000 songs in his career, once called Cindy Walker “the greatest country songwriter he’s ever heard.” Starting out as a singer and dancer, Walker’s real strength was in her words. Throughout her career, Walker penned songs like “You Don’t Know Me,” ‘In The Misty Moonlight,’ “Not That I Care,” and “It’s All Your Fault.” In 1944, Walker reached the top of charts with her song “When Your Blue Moon Turns to Gold” and continued to write more hits, including Gene Autry’s “Blue Canadian Rockies,” Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby,” and Jim Reeves “Take Me.” in Your Arms and Hold Me,” among others. Walker was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997 and earned more than 20 BMI awards throughout her career. Her songs have been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Ricky Skaggs, and Merle Haggard. The songwriter died in 2006, seven days after Willie Nelson released You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, a collection of her greatest hits. “If you can get a real good title, you’ve got something,” Walker said. “I always write from the title. I’ve never written a song without the title. The words and music come together, it just sort of comes to you. The songs just sing themselves to me. They kind of write themselves. I just stand back and listen.”

Song Snapshot:
“Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream),” recorded by Roy Orbison, Glen Campbell
“You Don’t Know Me,” recorded by Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles
“I Don’t Care,” recorded by Ricky Skaggs
“Distant Drums,” Jim Reeves

Sylvia Moy

Stevie Wonder was nearly dropped from Motown Records, the mega-label founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in Detroit, Michigan in 1959, but he had a songwriting angel by his side: Sylvia Moy. The singer and songwriter believed in the young Wonder, whose voice was changing as he got older. “I don’t believe it’s over for him,” Moy told a Motown exec. “Let me have Stevie.” Moy wrote “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” for the young singer, and the single peaked at No. 3 in 1966 and spent 14 weeks on the Billboard Top 100. Wonder remained on the label, which birthed the careers of Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, Diana Ross, and many more. Moy continued to work with Wonder throughout his career, writing numerous singles for him, including “My Cherie Amour” and “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” during her tenure at Motown. Moy, who died in 2017 at the age of 78, also co-wrote the Isley Brothers hit “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” continued writing for film and television, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006.

Snapshot of Songs:
“This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” The Isley Brothers
“Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” Stevie Wonder
“It Takes Two,” Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston
“Honey Chile,” Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

Holly Knight

A collection of songs by Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Kiss, and dozens of other artists in her songwriting catalog, Holly Knight has written some iconic songs throughout the past 40 years. Born in New York City, Knight studied classical piano and started out in two bands—Device, which hit the Top 40 in 1986 with the track “Hangin’ On A Heart Attack,” and Spider, which released two albums on longtime collaborator Mike Chapman’s Dreamland Records. Initially writing “Better Be Good To Me,” for Spider, the song later made its way on to Tina Turner’s 1984 album Private Dancer—one of 10 songs Knight wrote for Turner. Knight later reworked “The Best”—originally recorded by Bonnie Tyler—for Turner, who transformed it into a hit. Throughout her career, Knight won three Grammy Award-winning songs, earned 13 ASCAP awards, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. She has written for Bon Jovi, Chaka Khan, Cheap Trick, Hall and Oates, John Waite, Lou Gramm, Wynonna Judd, Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler, Aaron Neville, CeeLo Green, Kim Wilde, Shawn Colvin, Dusty Springfield, Will Hoge, Leigh Nash and more. Knight’s songs have been featured throughout TV and film, including Thelma & Louise, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Anchorman II, Thirteen Going On Thirty, and Dallas Buyers Club, along with television shows American Idol, The Voice, The Simpsons, South Park, The Following, and Schitt’s Creek.

Song Snapshot:
“The Best,” Tina Turner
“The Warrior,” Scandal, featuring Patty Smyth
“Love is a Battlefield,” Pat Benatar
“Rag Doll,” Aerosmith

Allee Willis

If you ever wondered who wrote the theme song for the hit show Friends, Allee Willis is your woman. The songwriter, who has written film and television, worked as a documentarian, writer, Broadway lyricist, and beyond, wrote countless hits for artists like Pet Shop Boys, the Pointer Sisters, Patti LaBelle, Jennifer Holliday, Cyndi Lauper, Debby Boone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Taylor Dayne, Rita Coolidge, Justin Timberlake, and more throughout her career. Born in Detroit, the music of Motown was engrained in Willis, who started her career as a junior copywriter at Columbia and sparked her hit-making run. Willis also wrote “September” for Earth, Wind, and Fire and went on to work with the band, co-writing six more tracks off their double-platinum album, I Am (1979), including “In the Stone,” co-written with David Foster. Willis, who died in 2019, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.

Song Snapshot:
“I’ll Be There For You” (Friends theme song), The Rembrandts
“What Have I Done to Deserve This?” Pet Shop Boys (featuring Dusty Springfield)
“September,” Earth, Wind, & Fire
“Neutron Dance,” The Pointer Sisters

Diane Warren

Working as a staff writer for the late singer Laura Branigan’s producer, Warren penned her first hit when asked to write English lyrics based on the 1981 French song of the same name by Martine Clémenceau. In 24 hours, Warren wrote “Solitaire,” which became a Top 10 hit for Branigan in 1983. By 1985, she gave Debarge another hit with “Rhythm of the Night,” which reached No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Throughout her career, Warren was the first person to have seven hits from seven different artists on the charts at one time, and she has written for dozens of artists, including Roberta Flack, Roy Orbison, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Roy Orbison, Cher, Patti LaBelle, Reba McEntire, ‘N ​​Sync, Gloria Estefan, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Enrique Iglesias, LeAnn Rimes, Aerosmith, Ricky Martin, Faith Hill, Celine Dion, and more. Warren’s songs have been featured on the soundtracks of more than 60 films. Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” featured in the 1998 film Armageddon, received an Oscar nomination, and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 and Contemporary chart, and again on the country chart with a rendition by Mark Chesnut, while “How Do I Live,” which was first recorded by a then 14-year-old LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood. Both versions were released on the same day in 1997, Yearwood’s was featured in the film Con Air, reached No. 1 on the country chart, and won the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance. In 2001, Warren received her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has been named ASCAP Songwriter of the year six times.

Snapshot of Hits:
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” Starship
“Love Will Lead You Back,” Taylor Dayne
“Don’t Turn Around,” Ace of Base
“When I See You Smile,” Bad English

Photo: Diane Warren (Rochelle Brodin); Sylvia Moy (Songwriters Hall of Fame)

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