Soul music was a fundamental part of American history as it influenced and gave voice to the Civil Rights movement. The combination of gospel, R&B, and jazz conveyed the African-American identity with pride and charisma. Handclaps, tense vocals, and improvisation are a few distinguishing characteristics that make soul music so lively and fun to listen to. Artists like Otis Redding and Donny Hathaway created a legacy that lived on after their untimely deaths, while musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner have spent decades in the limelight. The voting platform Ranker posed the question of who were the best soul singers of all time; read on to see who made the list.
Aretha Franklin Was A Groundbreaking Female Performer
A gospel singer from Detroit, Aretha Franklin was signed to Columbia Records at the age of 18. A decade into her professional music career, Aretha was deemed the “Queen of Soul” with timeless singles like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” topping the charts.
Her commercial success continued throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and her 1998 album A Rose Is Still A Rose was certified gold. She was the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she won 18 Grammys, and she sold more than 75 million records worldwide.
Marvin Gaye Won Over Production Companies
Sometimes referred to as the “Prince of Soul,” Marvin Gaye began his music career as a part of the vocal quartet The Marquees. It wasn’t until his solo career in the early ’60s that Marvin grew to prominence with singles like “Pride and Joy.”
His 1970s albums What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On were and are still today some of his most well-known work. His fearless attitude when working with production companies helped set a precedent for artists to have a say in their music, and led to his becoming one of the highest-paid black recording artists of the time.
Sam Cooke Was Called The Inventor Of Soul
Sometimes called the “King of Soul” or even the “inventor of Soul,” Sam Cooke began his professional career at just 14 years old. After more than a decade singing in gospel groups, he broke into the world of popular music with his famous album, Twistin’ the Night Away.
Cooke started his own record label in 1961, through which he produced dozens of singles that topped both the pop and R&B charts. Some of his most famous hits include “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Cupid.”
Otis Redding Became A Professional At 15
Otis Redding quit school at the young age of 15 to join Little Richard’s backing band, the Upsetters. A few years later, he toured as a singer with the group the Pinetoppers, and in 1962 he landed his first recording deal with Stax Records.
Redding spent the ’60s touring the US and Europe, and by 1967, he was on top of the world with hits like “Try A Little Tenderness.” The same year, he produced an album of duets with Carla Thomas called King & Queen alongside one of his most acclaimed songs, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
Ray Charles Performed As A Child
Ray Charles lost his vision at the age of seven, and thus learned to play classical piano through the use of braille music. He began performing popular music at assemblies, school socials, and WFOY Radio in St. Augustine, Florida.
Ray abandoned school in his adolescence and struggled to get by on piano gigs. At the age of 17, he headed to Seattle, formed a band, and recorded his first hit, “Confession Blues.” He was later signed to Atlantic Records, where he recorded such hits as “Georgia On My Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack.”
Stevie Wonder Was A Child Prodigy
Formerly known as Little Stevie Wonder, the musical prodigy was signed to Motown’s Tamla label at just 11 years old! Two years later, Stevie’s hit “Fingertips” made him the youngest artist to top the Billboard Hot 100.
Stevie had a slew of hits throughout the ’60s, including his self-produced single “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” The ’70s brought Stevie’s timeless hits “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” along with three Grammys for Album of the Year. His 25 total Grammys make him one of the most awarded musicians of all time.
Al Green, ‘The Last of the Great Soul Singers’
Sometimes called “The Last of the Great Soul Singers,” Al Green is known for his early ’70s soul hits such as “Take Me to the River” and “Let’s Stay Together.” While still in high school, he formed a band whose debut album, Back Up Train, put him on the map in 1969.
In 1971, Green’s second solo album featured his first certified gold hit, “Tired of Being Alone.” He put out a handful of other highly successful albums throughout the ’70s before refocusing his efforts on gospel music.
James Brown Became The “Godfather Of Soul”
Having grown up in extreme poverty, James Brown left school after the sixth grade and learned to play piano, harmonica, and guitar in his teens. After a short time as a boxer, he joined Bobby Byrd’s a capella gospel group in 1954.
In 1958, Brown released his first number one hit, “Try Me.” Throughout the ’60s, Brown established himself as an R&B star with singles like “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” His funk sound gave rise to his nickname as the “Godfather of Soul” in the ’70s.
The Temptations Came From Two Rival Vocal Groups
The Temptations group, originally called The Elgins, formed in Detroit in 1960. It consisted of five members, all of whom were previously part of rival vocal groups: the Distants and the Primes. The group signed to Motown’s Miracle Records in 1961 and the following year their single “(You’re My) Dream Come True” became their first to hit the charts.
The group rose to prominence in the middle of the decade with the help of producer Smokey Robinson, leading to one of their most famous songs, “My Girl.” Norman Whitfield produced their next big single, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”
Etta James Began Training Her Voice At Age Five
Though Etta James was born to an unknown father and an absentee mother, her foster care upbringing gave rise to brutal vocal training. The result was an emotionally distraught young girl with a powerful singing voice.
In her teens, she formed a girl group that was signed to Modern Records and toured with Little Richard. Etta went solo in the ’60s, starting with her hit album At Last! Some of her most famous singles include “Tell Mama” and “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.”
Smokey Robinson Wrote 100 Songs As A Teen
Detroit native Smokey Robinson formed a vocal group as a teen that would later be named The Miracles. Smokey impressed Berry Gordy with his notebook full of 100 songs he’d written in high school, so Berry helped the Miracles put out their first album.
After Berry founded Motown Records, the Miracles became the legendary label’s first successful act. In the ’60s, Smokey produced 26 top-forty hits with the Miracles. Smokey pursued his solo career in the ’70s and was the Vice President of Motown Records until 1988.
Curtis Mayfield Was A Self-Taught Musician
Chicago-born Curtis Mayfield loved music so much as a child that he used to sleep with his guitar. After teaching himself how to play music, he wrote and composed songs for his high school friend’s band, who would become the Impressions.
Curtis joined the Impressions and together they signed to ABC Records. After songs like “Gypsy Woman” and “It’s Alright” put them on the map, Curtis formed Curtom Records and later pursued a solo career. His songs were known for being motivational during the Civil Rights Movement.
Bill Withers Fell For Music While In the Navy
Bill Withers discovered his love for music during the nine years he spent in the Navy. At the age of 29, he moved to Los Angeles where he balanced work with pursuing his music career. Three years later, in 1970, Withers landed a music deal with Sussex Records.
On his debut album was the classic hit “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which won Withers a Grammy. His second album featured another timeless single “Lean On Me.” He later signed with Columbia Records, where he released the hit “Just the Two of Us.”
Luther Vandross Was Called “The Velvet Voice”
Born and raised in New York City, Luther Vandross loaned his vocal talents to several groups before pursuing a solo career. He also sept a few years writing and singing commercial jingles for such companies such as KFC and Juicy Fruit. His breakthrough came in the ’80s with the hit “The Glow of Love.”
After signing with Epic Records, his single “Never Too Much” topped the R&B charts. He went on to collaborate with singing greats such as Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. He received eight Grammys, four of which were for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, earning him the nickname “The Velvet Voice.”
Earth, Wind & Fire Began With Ten Members
Earth, Wind & Fire evolved out of the trio The Salty Peppers at the start of the ’70s. Founder Maurice White renamed the band after the astrological elements upon moving to Los Angeles and signing with Warner Bros. Records.
The ten-man band debuted their self-titled album in 1971, and it hit number 24 on the Billboard Top Soul Albums chart. It wasn’t until their sixth studio album that they reached number one with That’s The Way of the World, which featured their Grammy-winning single “Shining Star.”
Barry White Got His Break As A Producer
At the age of 14, Barry White’s voice dropped significantly as a result of puberty, which led to his eventual acclaim as a bass-baritone. He began his music career in his late teens, joining professional singing groups such as the Upfronts.
Barry began working for Del-Fi Records as an A&R man in the mid-’60s and became an acclaimed producer in the early ’70s through the girl group Love Unlimited. In 1973 he formed The Love Unlimited Orchestra and the same year put out his first solo album. He put out several chart-topping singles, including his famous “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.”
Gladys Knight & the Pips Were Active For Three Decades
Gladys Knight & the Pips formed in the early 1950s and consisted of family members. After spending several years performing in talent shows, they were signed to Brunswick Records and brought on non-family member Edward Patten.
The bulk of the band’s success came in the mid-’60s after signing with Motown Records and releasing the hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Their top hit was the 1973 single “Midnight Train to Georgia” with Buddah Records. They were with Columbia Records throughout the ’80s, during which time they earned a Grammy for “Love Overboard.”
Tina Turner Snuck Her Way Into Music Stardom
Tina Turner’s start as a singer seems like something out of a movie. After being rejected by her future husband, Ike Turner, upon asking to join his band, she wowed their audience with an impromptu rendition of B.B. King’s “You Know I Love You.”
After becoming a featured vocalist for Kings of Rhythm, Tina wrote and recorded her first hit single, “A Fool In Love,” alongside Ike. The couple went on to put out an array of other hits, including “River Deep — Mountain High” and “Proud Mary,” before Tina went solo in 1977.
Donny Hathaway Left College For Music
Donny Hathaway was raised in St. Louis by his grandmother, who was a professional gospel singer. He studied music at Howard University on a scholarship, but left before getting his degree due to work at Curtom Records. After securing his role as a producer, Donny began recording his own music.
It wasn’t until his third album that Donny found commercial success with the hit “Where Is The Love.” He is well-known for co-composing and performing the famous song “This Christmas.”
Jackie Wilson Helped Transition R&B Into Soul
Born to singer-songwriter Jack Leroy Wilson, Jr. and church choir singer Eliza Mae, Jackie Wilson grew up singing. After a rocky adolescence, he was discovered by talent agent Johnny Otis and later became the lead singer for the Dominoes.
Jackie started his solo career in 1957, and his single “Lonely Teardrops” topped the charts and achieved gold status. His dance moves landed Jackie the nickname “The Black Elvis” and further propelled his popularity. One of Jackie’s final hits was his 1967 single “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher.”