15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Female Soul Singers

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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There’s no doubt that soul music is one of the most powerful and emotional genres of music in the world. From its roots in gospel music to its popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, soul has always been about conveying strong messages and stirring up emotion in listeners.

And while there have been many male soul singers over the years who have achieved legendary status, today we’re going to be focusing on the ladies.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at 15 of the greatest and most famous female soul singers of all time. Let’s get started.

Related: Check out our list of the most famous soul singers here.

1. Aretha Franklin

Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was an American singer, civil rights activist, songwriter, actress, and pianist. She started her career at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, singing gospel songs. 

When Franklin turned 18, she began to pursue a secular career. She got signed to Atlantic Records in 1967, and her first commercial success and acclaim soon came with the release of the hit songs “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Spanish Harlem,” and “Think.”

The Soul Queen received numerous honors during her career, including 18 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Medal of Arts.

Franklin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. She passed away of pancreatic cancer in 2018.

Related: Read our list of the most famous female gospel singers here

2. Whitney Houston

One of the world’s best-selling music artists, with 200 million records sold worldwide, we have Whitney Houston. She was an American singer who also found success in acting later in her career.

From 1985 to 2009, Whitney released seven studio albums, and all but the holiday album was either certified Platinum, multi-Platinum, or Diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Houston is the only artist with seven consecutive #1 Billboard Hot 100 hits. In acting, her debut role in the film The Bodyguard is particularly notable. The soundtrack, which contains Houston’s greatest hit, “I Will Always Love You,” topped charts in 18 countries and was certified 18-times Platinum.

Sadly, Houston passed away from a drug-related accidental drowning in 2012; however, her crossover appeal on various music charts has inspired other African-American female artists to follow in her footsteps.

Related: Check out our list of the best male soul singers here.

3. Diana Ross

American singer, record producer, and actress Diana Ross was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Her career start was as the lead singer of the all-female group the Supremes.

The trio became one of the best-selling groups of all time with their hit singles “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” and “Come See About Me.” As a solo artist, Ross also critical success with her songs “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and “Upside Down.”

Ross has received numerous awards throughout her career, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, 12 American Music Awards, 25 Billboard Music Awards, 18 Grammy Awards, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center.

4. Roberta Flack

Now retired, North Carolinian singer Roberta Flack had made quite an impression with the soul music community during her heyday.

She started her musical career in the late 1960s with her debut album, First Take. The album brought her commercial success, spawning the hit singles “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly.”

Flack went on to release 19 studio albums, including Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Killing Me Softly, and Blue Lights in the Basement—all three top 10 in charts. The singer also dabbled in acting, appearing in the films Roots (1977) and Round Midnight (1986).

Flack has won five Grammy Awards, including Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and a Lifetime Achievement Award.

5. Etta James

Performances by Etta James were varied in genres. Sometimes blues, jazz, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll, but her work was often described as soul.

The singer’s career started in the 1950s. It was led by hits such as “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)” and “At Last,” the latter landing James a Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy Award.

James went on to release a string of successful albums, including At Last! (1961), Tell Mama (1968), and Love Songs (1973). Like Flack, James also starred in films, notable are her roles in The Rose and Cadillac Records.

James was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. She won 3 Grammy Awards and, in 2003, got her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

6. Tina Turner

With her career spanning more than 50 years, Tina Turner is undoubtedly a great singer with hits that had not just the heart of soul in them but also pop, rock, and R&B.

Before embarking on a solo career, Turner was a formidable singer with her then-husband Ike Turner. Together they churned out “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and “River Deep—Mountain High.”

In the early 1980s, she started to go solo. Her 1984 album Private Dancer became one of the world’s best-selling albums at the time, selling more than 20 million copies worldwide, and spawned many of her major hits, like “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and “Better Be Good to Me.”

7. Chaka Khan

Our next singer, Chaka Khan, had her music career start as the lead singer of the band Rufus. Her time with them gained her the title Queen of Funk.

Just before Rufus disbanded, Khan had already started going solo. Her debut album gained Platinum status with the help of “I’m Every Woman,” which Whitney Houston later revived and also brought to #1 on the charts.

Other hit songs Khan released were “I Feel for You” and “Through the Fire.” As with other singers on this list, the singer also starred in a few films, such as The Blues Brothers and Revival .

Khan has been nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, winning two, and has received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the BET Lifetime Achievement Award.

8. Anita Baker

No one blends jazz with soul better than Anita Baker. The singer began crooning into the ears of fans early in the 1980s with the release of her debut album The Songstress.

Baker went on to release a string of albums that became certified Platinum, including Rapture (1986), Giving You the Best That I Got (1988), and Compositions (1990). These featured her hit singles “Sweet Love,” “Giving You the Best That I Got,” and “Body and Soul.”

For three consecutive years, from 1987 to 1989, Baker won five Grammy Awards, and in 1994, she received her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

9. Gladys Knight

Next up, we have the Empress of Soul. Gladys Knight is best known as the lead singer of the Motown group Gladys Knight & the Pips, with whom she recorded charting songs such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “If I Were Your Woman,” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” 

She ventured into a solo career around the late 1980s. During this time, she dropped the songs “That’s What Friends Are For” and “License to Kill” that propelled her to even greater fame.

Knight won seven Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for “That’s What Friends Are For.” Recently, she was bestowed a Kennedy Center Honors.

10. Patti LaBelle

If we have Empress of Soul, we also have the Godmother of Soul, and Patti LaBelle is it. The Pennsylvania native career in the 1960s as a member of the girl group Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles.

After the group disbanded in 1976, LaBelle went on to have a successful solo career. Her debut album was a critical acclaim that contained one of her best songs, “You Are My Friend.”

Other hits the songstress is noted for are “If Only You Knew,” “New Attitude,” and “Stir It Up.” LaBelle has also appeared in films, having roles in Unnatural Causes, Santa Baby, and Parker Cane.

LaBelle has won three Grammy Awards and a BET Lifetime Achievement Award. For her numerous music contributions, she’s been added into several halls of fame, including Grammy Hall of Fame and the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame.

11. Sade

Nigerian-born British singer Sade has been singing soul since the start of her career in the 1980s. She is the lead singer of her eponymous band.

Her husky contralto has gained a bevy of fans worldwide, who fell in love with it after listening to her “Your Love Is King,” “Smooth Operator,” and “The Sweetest Taboo.”

Other songs of Sade that has charted are “No Ordinary Love,” “By Your Side,” and “Soldier of Love.” Of all these hits mentioned, Sade has received ASCAP Pop Music Awards for the first two and a Grammy for “No Ordinary Love.”

12. Jill Scott

Singer-songwriter and actress Jill Scott began her career in the early 2000s cowriting songs for artists such as the Roots. After gaining notice for her work, she released her first album, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1.

The album was a major success that won the singer a Soul Train Music Award and Lady of Soul Award. It also spawned the hit single “A Long Walk,” which she received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Vocal Performance.

In 2000, Scott began a career in acting. She landed roles in in well-known movies such as Why Did I Get Married? and Baggage Claim. She can also be seen in the comedy TV series First Wives Club.

13. Alicia Keys

One of the more younger soul singers on this list, we have Alicia Keys. She rose to prominence in the early 2000s with her debut album Songs in A Minor. It catapulted her to success.

The single “Fallin'” from the album became an instant it, and Keys bagged 3 Grammys for the song alone, for a total of 5 with the Grammys she received for the album as well.

Other notable songs from Keys are “My Boo,” “No One,” and “Girl on Fire.” She has also collaborated with many other contemporary artists, like rapper Eve for “Gangsta Lovin'” and Jay-Z for “Empire State of Mind.”

14. Ledisi

Ledisi Anibade Young is professionally known simply by the first name. Like Alicia Keys, the Oakland-based singer began her career in the early 2000s with her debut album, Soulsinger. Though it did not chart, the album was well-received.

She later gained commercial success with Lost & Found in 2007, which spawned “Alright,” one of her best earlier works.

Later, Ledisi released Pieces of Me. The title song peaked at #2 on the charts and was nominated for a Grammy Award. She did not win this but received a Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Anything For You” (2020), her only #1 single.

15. Phyllis Hyman

Lastly, we have Pennsylvanian Phyllis Hyman. The soul singer started her career back in the 1970s, and after she released her eponymous debut album, she gained popularity throughout the ’80s to the early 1990s. 

She’s best known for “You Know How to Love Me” and “Don’t Wanna Change the World.” Hyman went on to release 9 more studio albums in her career, with 1979’s You Know How to Love Me and 1991’s Prime of My Life reaching top 10 in US R&B charts.

During the later part of her career, Hyman suffered from depression and bipolar disease. Sadly, she overdosed in 1995 and passed away.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Women Soul Vocalists

Featured Image: Alicia Keys by Eva Rinaldi (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

With the fame and awards these women garnered throughout their careers, they have shown that soul music is not just for women to enjoy but for everyone.

They have made significant contributions to the genre and have carved out successful careers for themselves that have lasted decades, and maybe even more!

However, these are only a few of the great female soul singers out there. Let us know who we missed off our list and we’ll add them in!

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.