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.
20: Bettye Swann (1944- present)
Her name was Betty Chapin, a winning moniker in itself, but Bettye Swann’s voice had a stately elegance with a delicious delicacy. Living in Los Angeles, Swann scored enough soul chart hits in the mid-60s to attract the attention of Capitol Records, which released her first two albums in 1969. Swann’s voice, tenderly placing every nuanced note to perfection, saw her hit with Make Me Yours (1967) and Don’t Touch Me (1969). She switched to Atlantic in 1971, and her beautiful Victim Of A Foolish Heart and Today I Started Loving You Again, both recorded at Muscle Shoals, plus Time To Say Goodbye, cut in Philadelphia, rank as her greatest sides, raising Swann’s reputation among the best soul singers. A compilation, Elegant Soul, which she shares with Barbara Lynn, tells you everything you need to know in its title. Bettye Swann may never have become a superstar, but soul fans know that nobody can deliver poignant songs quite like her.
Must hear: Time To Say Goodbye
19: Brook Benton (1931-1988)
Brook Benton was a pop singer, crooner, songwriter; an urbane deliverer of musical stories. While some of the music he made was not soul at all, his deep, silken tones were the epitome of soulfulness. He made his breakthrough with several hits from 1959 through to 1962, including Endlessly and A Matter Of Time, and his duets with Dinah Washington, among them A Rocking Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love), gave inspiration to Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ King & Queen album, and Marvin Gaye’s work with female partners. By the mid-60s, when soul music was all about dynamics, Benton’s smoothness was seen as old-fashioned, but when he signed to Cotillion in 1968, he began recording at Muscle Shoals, and 1969’s Rainy Night In Georgia established his new rootsier style – a little country, a little bit pop, and a whole lot of soul. The record was a smash, and established Tony Joe White’s tune as a go-to among the best soul songs. 1970’s The Brook Benton Today album sold well, and the subsequent Home Style and The Storyteller records stuck with the new style. He didn’t compete with James Brown or Motown, but Benton’s thoughtful, down-home manner spoke to people – and still can.
Must hear: Rainy Night In Georgia
18: Cissy Houston (1933- present)
Cissy Houston developed her vocal prowess in church with the group The Drinkard Singers, and her family was packed with great vocalists, including Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. In the early 60s, Houston formed a group which coalesced into The Sweet Inspirations, backing vocalists to Solomon Burke, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison. But their most important engagement was accompanying Aretha Franklin when she finally became a star after years of trying. Franklin’s label, Atlantic, signed The Sweet Inspirations, too, and they cut their glorious eponymous debut album in 1967, including the hit named after the group. Houston’s vocals were sizzling, and The Sweet Inspirations’ version of Do Right Woman – Do Right Man is as soulful as Franklin’s, while Here I Am (Take Me) shows off her skills to the fullest extent. She appeared on four further albums with The Sweet Inspirations, then went solo; among her achievements was the original cut of Midnight Train To Georgia and a moving version of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. Oh, and she was the mother of Whitney Houston, passing on the DNA that made her one of the best soul singers of her generation…
Must hear: Here I Am (Take Me) (with The Sweet Inspirations)
17: 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, especially on slower material. Funky, emotive, open-hearted, exciting, their peak period lasted for just a few years, but they really had it goin’ on.
Must hear: Soul Sister, Brown Sugar
16: 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
15: Bobby “Blue” Bland (1930-2013)
Bobby Bland started off in the blues era, shifted to R&B and became one of Black America’s greatest soul stars in the 60s, thanks to songs such as That’s The Way Love Is (1963) and Ain’t Nothing You Can Do (1964). But he never sold records in significant numbers to a white audience, perhaps for contradictory reasons: on the one hand, his smoky voice was “too bluesy”; on the other, his arrangements, usually by Joe Scott during the 60s, “too sophisticated”. He was outside soul’s mainstream, but he was certainly soulful, and he became a significant influence on the likes of Rod Stewart and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall. Bland’s 70s and 80s records remained strong, and he refused to “go disco”, preferring to remain faithful to the music that made him.
Must hear: Rockin’ In The Same Old Boat
14: Ted Mills (1952- present)
It’s not the most showbizzy of names; even when he added “Wizard” in the middle, Ted Mills never became a superstar. But he sang on plenty of hits – and wrote them, too – and never chased the spotlight, preferring to be the lead voice in Blue Magic, a group which made the prettiest music of the Philly soul boom. One of the best soul singers to never get his due, Ted sang way, way up in the clouds, but he was an angel with human frailty: his sound was riddled with melancholy. Listen to What’s Come Over Me, from Blue Magic’s self-titled debut album (1973), a song the group returned to with a guesting Margie Joseph on Thirteen Blue Magic Lane (1975). Or try the pensive You Won’t Have To Tell Me Goodbye, from The Magic Of The Blue (1974): his delivery is so delicate yet downbeat; he did what the song required rather than showing off. Mills really delivered symphonic soul with lashings of honey, while reminding us that we are all weak when faced with the power of love.
Must hear: What’s Come Over Me (with Blue Magic)
13: Patti LaBelle (1944- present)
Patti LaBelle didn’t sing on her first hit, I Sold My Heart To The Junkman, though it was credited to Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles in some record company copyright shenanigans. But she hit the road in support of the song, and had the talent to make it work: she is one of the most distinctive singers of the soul generation. Her group signed to Atlantic in 1965, and the small hit All Or Nothing revealed Patti’s alluring yet occasionally fierce vocal talent, coming over as strikingly powerful on this shimmering uptown soul song. After a couple of albums, the group reconfigured as Labelle, space-rock-glitz soul chicks, and signed to Warner Bros. They sang rock songs such as Cat Stevens’ Moon Shadow and The Who’s Won’t Let Fooled Again, and Patti was a better rock singer (if less successful) than the people whose records Labelle covered. They scored a huge hit with the timeless Lady Marmalade in 1974, and Patti went solo three years later. Her albums sold reasonably well until Patti went over, making it to No.1 in 1985, and her duet with Michael McDonald, On My Own, topped Billboard’s singles chart the following year. She became a regular on US TV, as an actress and a guest artist. Remarkably, whatever setting she sang in, Patti never ceased singing in an uncompromising soul manner, and all her work, from the 60s to the present day, testifies to her status as one of the best soul singers of all time.
Must hear: All Or Nothing
12: 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
11: Lamont Dozier (1941-2022)
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
10: Candi Staton (1940- present)
One of the best female soul singers of her era, Candi Staton’s career has been unpredictable. In 1968, she met the singer Clarence Carter, who took her to Alabama’s FAME Studios, whose owner, Rick Hall, signed her. She later married Carter, and their vocal phrasing was apparently influenced by each other. Staton began scoring hit records from 1969 and was known as the “Queen Of Southern Soul”, able to bring passion to other people’s hits, such as In The Ghetto and Stand By Your Man. In 1974, she signed to Warner Bros, and her soulful Young Hearts Run Free gave disco extra heart in 1976, and is still fondly thought of as one of the best LGBTQ+ songs from that pivotal time. The following year, her delicious cut of Bee Gees’ Nights On Broadway was a huge dancefloor smash. Staton’s considerable British fanbase made Suspicious Minds a hit in 1982, and You Got The Love, credited to The Source Featuring Candi Station, hit the UK charts three times, going platinum. Blessed with the strength to face worrying health problems and five divorces, Candi Staton is not just a vocal giant, she’s a remarkable human being.
Must hear: Young Hearts Run Free
9: Marvin Junior (1936-2013)
The Dells’ Marvin Junior was probably the greatest male singer in any soul group. Yet he reckoned his voice was never quite as strong as it had been before a car crash in 1958. Perhaps fate had intervened to give everyone else a chance, because Marvin Junior was a soul inferno even after the accident. The Dells were Chicago soul legends; they formed in 1953, and their line-up remained stable from 1961 until their 2012 retirement. They were everything a soul vocal group should be, and they sometimes appeared uncredited, as on Barbara Lewis’ smash hit Hello Stranger. Marvin Junior’s baritone was the group’s special power; arguably only Levi Stubbs of Four Tops comes close to stealing his spot among the best soul singers.
Must hear: The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)
8: Tina Turner (1939- present)
Tuna Turner doesn’t just sing soul. She’s a rock icon – the “Queen Of Rock’n’Roll”, a symbol of female resilience, an 80s superstar and boss of the 60s R&B stage. But let’s not forget her awesome voice, an often-imitated, never-replicated instrument that can sell songs as diverse as River Deep – Mountain High, Black Coffee, Nutbush City Limits and Private Dancer with equal facility. She influenced many male singers, too, from Mick Jagger to Steve Marriott to Paul Rodgers, and her rise to solo fame following her hair-raising life with Ike Turner is an inspiration. Tina doesn’t just sing soul. She lives it.
Must hear: Bold Soul Sister (1973)
7: 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
6: 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
5: Marvin Gaye (1939-1984)
At first, Marvin Gaye may not have been able to decide whether he would become a Broadway vocalist, a Sam Cooke-styled singer or a torch crooner, but once he’d embraced his soul destiny, boy did he succeed. Capable of everything from disco to sexy ballads to electronica to political laments to superb R&B dance tunes, Marvin ruled it all. Fans of 60s soul love early records such as Can I Get A Witness and One More Heartache; everyone knows I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Sexual Healing; critics adore What’s Going On; and his late-70s work lays bare an inner turmoil few other artists would dare reveal. His shocking death did not silence his remarkable talent as one of the best soul singers of all time.
Must hear: Distant Lover
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, setting the pace for the best Wilson Pickett songs: 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 Pickett’s 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 with the best Aretha Franklin songs? Some tried; most simply bowed to her brilliance.
Must hear: Respect
She’s topped our list of the best soul singers, now hear the best Aretha Franklin songs.
Original article: 8 May 2021
Updated: 3 October 2022
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