Soul music was born in the African American community in the mid-20th century. It’s since become a key source of inspiration for artists and has birthed a number of offshoot styles.
The history of soul is rich with talent, but some singers stand out above the rest. But who are the 15 greatest and most famous soul singers of all time? Read on to find out.
1. Ray Charles
One of the greatest soul singers of all time, Ray Charles was born in 1930, in Greenville, Florida.
At age four, Charles began to lose his sight and by 7, he was entirely blind as a result of glaucoma.
Despite losing his vision, Charles grew up to become one of the most influential singers and pianists of all time.
He developed his piano skills by reading Braille music with one hand and playing the piano with the other.
Charles got his break in 1952 when he was signed by Atlantic Records. He released his famous hit, “I’ve Got a Woman,” in 1954, and in 1979, “Georgia on My Mind” was dubbed the state song of Georgia.
Charles died of liver failure in 2004.
2. Marvin Gaye
Next up we have the legend Marvin Gaye who was an American soul singer and songwriter.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1939, his passion for music emerged when he started singing for his father’s church at age four.
Dubbed “the number one purveyor of soul,” Gaye was one of the founding fathers of Motown. This rhythm & blues style took root in the 1960s and was named after the Motown record company.
His greatest hits include “How Sweet it Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “Let’s Get It On,”
One of Gaye’s most notable accomplishments is that he was the first black artist to land a $1 million record deal. But, sadly, after an altercation with his father, Gaye was shot and killed in 1984.
3. Stevie Wonder
A pioneer of soul, Stevland Hardaway Morris, more commonly known as Stevie Wonder, was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950.
Unfortunately, he was rendered blind shortly after birth due to a birth defect. That didn’t stop him from developing a love of singing, which emerged when he was young.
Wonder was discovered and signed to Motown Records at age 11. His initial success came a few years later when he released “Fingertips.”
The 1970s-1980s were his prime, with hits like “Happy Birthday” and “Superstition.” To date, Wonder has sold more than 100 million records.
Despite a kidney transplant in 2019, Wonder currently has several projects in development.
4. James Brown
James Brown is an American soul, funk, and R&B singer from Barnwell, South Carolina who was a prominent education and civil rights activist in the 1960s.
Dubbed the “Godfather of Soul,” he was a pioneer of soul and funk.
Brown’s career began in 1954 when he joined the Avons. He released his first hit, “Try Me,” in 1958, then continued on to release 17 more chart-toppers throughout his 53-year career, including his greatest hit, “Get Up Offa That Thing.”
Brown passed away in 2006 of heart failure. In the years following his death, there were calls to open an investigation into how he died. To date, that investigation hasn’t happened.
5. Luther Vandross
A New Jersey native, Luther Vandross was born in 1951 in Edison and raised in New York City
A musical prodigy, Vandross taught himself to play the phonograph when he was three.
His voice is one of the most well-recognized in the R&B and soul genres.
Vandross’ career began in 1972 when he became a backup vocalist for Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.
He dabbled with commercial jingles through the early 80s before breaking out as an award-winning solo artist in 1981 with “Never Too Much.”
During his 30-year career, Vandross collaborated with big names in the music industry, including Diana Ross and Gregory Hines.
After a long, successful career, Vandross died of a heart attack in 2005.
6. Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke was born in 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Chicago as a child, where he started his music career at age six.
Dubbed the King of Soul, Cooke’s career began in 1950 with the Soul Stirrers.
He shifted to a solo career in 1957, during which time he released several chart-topping hits, including “You Send Me,” which spent 17 weeks as Billboard’s #1.
Cooke’s career was cut short in 1964 when he was killed after allegedly attacking a hotel manager.
One of his most iconic songs, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was released one month later. This was considered an anthem during the Civil Rights era.
7. Al Green
Albert Greene is an American soul and R&B singer and pastor from Forrest City, Arkansas.
Green’s desire to be a musician emerged at age ten when he joined the Greene Brothers.
Considered “The Last of the Great Soul Singers,” Green was heavily influenced by James Brown and Sam Cooke.
He released his first album, Green Is Blues, in 1969, and the first of eight gold hits, “Tired of Being Alone,” came two years later.
Green briefly left mainstream music before returning in 1988 to perform “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” with Annie Lennox.
He collaborated with various artists in the latter portion of his career, and his most recent release came in 2018.
8. Smokey Robinson
William “Smokey” Robinson is an American pop, soul, and R&B singer born in Detroit in 1940. The nickname “Smokey” was bestowed upon him by his uncle when he was a child.
He formed his first band, the Five Chimes, when he was 15 but his career kicked off with the Miracles in 1957. Then he shifted to a solo career after a brief retirement in 1973.
Some of his greatest hits came from his solo career, including “Cruisin'” and “Being With You.”
Robinson had a total of 26 hits that made the Top 40. One of his most significant claims to fame is that he formed Motown Records, formerly known as Tamla, which has signed some of the greatest names in R&B and soul.
9. Otis Redding
Nicknamed the “King of Soul,” Otis Redding was an American singer and songwriter born in Dawson, Georgia, in 1941.
He began to delve into music as a young child when he learned to play multiple instruments.
Redding got his big break in 1958 when he performed in a talent contest at a local theater. After that, he toured throughout the southern US on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
He saw significant success over the next 9 years with hits including “Try a Little Tenderness.”
Redding died in a plane crash in 1967. “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay’,” one of his most well-known numbers, was released in 1968 and was his first piece to take Billboard’s number one spot.
10. Peabo Bryson
Robert “Peabo” Bryson is an American soul singer from Greenville, South Carolina. He debuted at age 14 and shortly after left to perform on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
Bryson’s best known for the soul ballads he often records with female singers.
Some of his most well-known hits were “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love” with Roberta Flack and “Can You Stop the Rain.” He also contributed to the soundtracks for Disney’s Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.
In 2016, Charleston, South Carolina dubbed September 4 “Peabo Bryson Day.” His most recent release, Stand For Love, came out in 2018.
11. Barry White
Born in Galveston, Texas, in 1944, Barry White’s low baritone voice became synonymous with soulful love songs.
While he learned to play classical piano as a child his earliest success came at 11 years old when he played piano for Jesse Melvin’s “Goodnight My Love.”
His greatest hits came during his solo career in the 1970s and 1980s, including “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.”
After years of declining health, White passed away in 2003 from a heart attack.
He was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2004 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014.
12. Howard Hewett
Howard Hewett is a multi-genre American singer and songwriter from Akron, Ohio.
He moved to LA when he was 21, where he began his music career as lead singer for Shalamar.
Hewett shifted to a solo career in the mid-1980s. His first solo album, I Commit to Love, came out in 1986, and yielded two top ten singles, including “I’m For Real.”
“Show Me” was one of his greatest hits and appeared on his 1990 self-titled album.
Hewett shifted his focus to collaborations after his fourth album didn’t see much commercial success.
His most recent release, If Only, came out in 2007 to moderate success.
13. Teddy Pendergrass
Teddy Pendergrass was born Theodore DeReese Pendergrass in Kingstree, South Carolina, in 1950.
He moved to Philadelphia when he was young, where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a pastor at age 10.
Pendergrass’s raspy baritone voice is one of the most recognizable voices in soul.
He started out in the 1970s with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes before shifting to a solo career in 1977. His early solo success included hits like “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “It Don’t Hurt Now.”
After a car crash in 1982, Pendergrass became tetraplegic. Despite his injury, he returned to the stage in 1985 to perform at Philly’s Live Aid concert.
He continued to perform until he died in 2010.
14. Percy Sledge
The American soul singer Percy Sledge was born in Leighton, Alabama, in 1940.
He worked a variety of jobs before starting his singing career in the 1960s with the Esquires Combos.
Sledge released his first contracted song, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” in 1966. It quickly became the foundation for Sledge’s career.
He saw significant fame in the 1970s, and his career regained steam in the 1980s when “When a Man Loves a Woman” hit the UK charts for a second time.
Sledge’s career rounded out in 2011 during a tour with Sir Cliff Richard. After a four-year battle with liver cancer, Sledge passed away in 2015.
15. Curtis Mayfield
Born in 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, Curtis Lee Mayfield was an American multi-genre musician.
He discovered his musical ability at ten when he taught himself guitar. He formed his first band, the Alphatones, at age 14.
As a highly influential figure in soul, Mayfield kicked off his career in 1956 with the Roosters.
His solo career began in 1970 with Curtis, then peaked with the soundtrack to Super Fly in 1972 that contained the eponymous single that became a hallmark of his career.
Sadly, in 1990, Mayfield became paralyzed after a stage accident. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame shortly before his death in 1999.
Summing Up Our List Of Great Soul Singers
As you can see from the list above, the list of incredible male soul singers is completely dominated by African Americans who have birthed some of the most influential sounds in American musical history.
The men listed here have inspired many throughout their lives and continue to do so today.