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Best Soul Singers: 10 Must-Hear Voices From Soul Music’s Golden Era
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List & Guides

Best Soul Singers: 10 Must-Hear Voices From Soul Music’s Golden Era

From powerhouse personalities to gentle falsettos, the best soul singers can make you dance or weep, can touch your hearts or move your hips.

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Soul: you can’t define it, but you know it when you hear it. The music emerged in the 50s thanks to pioneering artists such as Little Willie John, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke cemented it, and it rose to prominence – dominance, even – in the following decade, and has been with us ever since. One of the most innovative styles of Black music in the 60s and 70s, it can make you dance or make you weep. It can touch your heart or move your hips. It provides a route for singers to download their emotions directly to your mind. A song once claimed, “All God’s children got soul,” but some got more of it than others. Here, then, are the best soul singers from the music’s golden era.

Best Soul Singers: 10 Must-Hear Voices From Soul Music’s Golden Era

10: Sam & Dave (Sam Moore, 1935- present; Dave Prater, 1937-1988)

Two for the price of one, Sam & Dave were the greatest soul-singing duo of the 60s, cutting hit after hit in the middle of the decade. Also superb dancers, their show justified the epithet “Double Dynamite”, the title of one of their albums. However, Both Sam Moore and Dave Prater were gifted singers, and Moore in particular had a voice that could break your heart on slower material than their foundational funkier stuff. Emotive, open-hearted and exciting, their peak period was just a few years, but they really had it goin’ on.

Must hear
: Soul Sister, Brown Sugar

9: Sam Dees (1945- present)

A lot of music lovers have not heard of Sam Dees; they are missing out. He is responsible for several million-sellers – as a songwriter. But he deserves to be spoken of among the best soul singers. Born in in Birmingham, Alabama, Dees cut a handful of singles on various labels and earned a crust as a jobbing songwriter for the likes of Clarence Carter, ZZ Hill and Loleatta Holloway. In 1973 he signed to Atlantic and finally got the opportunity to make an album, 1975’s The Show Must Go On. Not only showcasing his remarkable, straight-to-the-heart voice, it was packed with wonderful songs and revealed his social conscience – though some of his hardest-edged lyrics, such as Signed Miss Heroin, were left off. The album didn’t sell, becoming a collectors’ item, and he didn’t get to cut another long-player for 14 years, though he wrote for Larry Graham, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight.

Must hear: Troubled Child

8: Roberta Flack (1937- present)

Soul comes in many forms, and the refined sound of Roberta Flack could not contrast more sharply with the testifyin’ grits’n’gravy of many Southern soul stars. Accompanying herself on piano, this thoughtful and elegant singer played cafes around Washington, DC, in the late 60s, having previously pursued a career in classical music. Discovered by jazz pianist Les McCann, who had her audition – successfully – for Atlantic, Flack released her debut album, First Take, in 1969, though it took more than two years to become a major success. Very much an album artist, she still scored hits with the likes of Killing Me Softly With His Song, Feel Like Makin’ Love and a lasting musical union with the troubled genius Donny Hathaway, which resulted in Where Is The Love, Back Together Again and The Closer I Get To You. Pure, warm, controlled and emotionally connected, there is no singer quite like Roberta Flack.

Must hear: Killing Me Softly With His Song

7: Lamont Dozier (1941- present)

Though he is more commonly noted as part of the unique Motown production team Holland-Dozier-Holland, Lamont Dozier was one of the best soul singers of his era, and creator of some of the greatest – if least appreciated – soul albums of the 70s. Capable of delivering heavyweight grooves and songs of feather-light tenderness alike, he cut three albums for Warner Bros in the mid-70s that explored human emotion in its many forms. One, the modestly titled Peddlin’ Music On The Side (he’d previously named an album Black Bach!) included the song he’s most known for as a solo artist, Going Back To My Roots, one of the best 70s funk tracks, period. Sure, he could write. But feel the emotion in his voice.

Must hear: Going Back To My Roots

6: Ray Charles (1930-2004)

Soul’s founding father was a giant of any music he took on: R&B, jazz, country, pop, rock’n’roll – he was the master of all. Brother Ray lost his sight at the age of seven, yet never lost his musical vision. Cutting R&B hits for small companies led to a contract with Atlantic in 1953, and his first hit for the label was Mess Around, now regarded as a classic; the following year he hit with I Got A Woman. This period peaked with the much-imitated call-and-response smash What’d I Say in 1959. Atlantic marketed him as The Genius; Charles proved it with a shift to ABC-Paramount and songs such as Hit The Road Jack and Georgia On My Mind, plus the huge Modern Sounds In Country Music album. He enjoyed hits through the 60s, though they became increasingly sporadic, and ran his own labels, Tangerine and Crossover. An inspiration to Stevie Wonder, and a survivor of drug busts and salacious stories, Ray Charles was simply too good to fail.

Must hear: What’d I Say

5: Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999)

While many of the best soul singers imposed their personalities by sheer vocal force, Curtis Mayfield deployed a gentle falsetto – facility for a pretty melody and wise lyrics to reach the people. His career began in the vocal group The Impressions, and he took over as leader in 1961 when Jerry Butler went solo. Mayfield led the trio through the 60s, offering everything from Motown-like burners to tender Latin ballads, while his lyrics grew increasingly conscious on such songs as People Get Ready, We’re A Winner and This Is My Country. In 1970, having already launched three record labels – the most lasting of which was Curtom – Mayfield went solo, scoring hits with Move On Up and two cuts from his remarkable soundtrack for the 1972 movie Superfly, the title track and Freddie’s Dead. He wrote and produced numerous other acts and was still regarded as a soul hero when an accident on stage left him paralysed in 1990. He continued to record sporadically before passing away in 1999.

Must hear: We Got To Have Peace

4: Solomon Burke (1940-2010)

Crowned “The King Of Rock And Soul” in 1963, Solomon Burke was a (literally) huge figure in soul, a man around whom stories accumulated – many created by the singer himself. He grew up wailing gospel in Philadelphia, even though he sounded like a singer from the South. Invested as a Bishop in church when he was a baby, Burke preached as a child, and therefore carried a strong sense of theatricality when he made the jump to secular music in the mid-50s. Joining Atlantic in 1960, his numerous records for the company spanned everything from country to outright rock’n’roll, but his forte was soul and R&B, and his Everybody Needs Somebody To Love is a much-covered mid-60s anthem that still resonates. He recorded for numerous labels, opened many businesses and, when he started his own church in Los Angeles, Burke soon had 300 ministers across North America preaching the gospel his way. As late as 2002, his burly figure cut a riveting presence on Jools Holland’s British TV show, singing a powerfully dramatic Don’t Give Up On Me.

Must hear: Everybody Needs Somebody To Love

3: Wilson Pickett (1941-2006)

Soul’s force of nature, The Wicked Pickett screamed and roared his way through hit after hit in the 60s, seemingly a superstar by birthright. He found his first inkling of success in Detroit group The Falcons before signing to Atlantic in 1964. The following year he landed his first mega-hit, In The Midnight Hour. Don’t Fight It, Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do), 634-5789, Land Of 1,000 Dances, Mustang Sally… there was no stopping him. One of the best soul singers of the 60s, Pickett kept scoring hits despite regularly swapping songwriters, sidemen and studios across the South, and his version of Hey Jude made the world sit up and take notice of Duane Allman, who delivered a freak-out guitar solo on the record. A trip north brought further success in 1970 with the album In Philadelphia, though his career never quite recovered its momentum after he left Atlantic in 1972, and he suffered from illness and addiction. However, Pickett remained a magnetic figure, and his presence in the 1991 movie The Commitments was almost palpable, even though he did not actually appear on screen. He passed away in 2006, having packed several lifetimes into his 64 years.

Must hear: Land Of 1,000 Dances

2: Otis Redding (1941-1967)

A giant of Southern soul, the success of Otis Redding took Stax Records into the big league, and he was the Memphis label’s musical figurehead. Tender, tough, gentle and blasting, Otis could do it all – he took unlikely material from the 20s and made it entirely fitting for the 60s, and covered contemporary rock tunes such as The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get Not) Satisfaction and rendered them fully soulful. Just when he’d found a new hippie audience in 1967, Redding died in a plane crash, leaving a tantalising glimpse of a mellow new folk-tinged style in his posthumous No.1, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.

Must hear: Try A Little Tenderness

1: Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

Lady Soul. The Queen Of Soul. Simply Aretha, or even ’Retha… Aretha Franklin[’s sheer talent and pure soul power puts her at the top of this list of the best soul singers – untouchable, even when her release rate slowed. She spent some years floating between jazz and soul, but when she committed to the latter in 1967, this gospel-driven powerhouse proved so strong that she was just “next level”. Turning out classic albums such as I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and Lady Soul, Franklin even took signature songs by fellow giants Otis Redding and James Brown and made them her own. Who could compete? Some tried; most simply bowed to her brilliance.

Must hear: Respect

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