25 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Soul Singers Of All Time 

Last updated

There’s nothing quite like soul music if you want to feel the music you’re listening to. With roots in jazz, gospel, and R&B, soul singers have been crooning on the radio for almost a century. 

There have been many talented and pioneering soul singers over the years, and more are emerging today. In this article, we’re looking at 25 of the greatest and most famous soul singers of all time to see how they have contributed to the genre.

Let’s begin! 

1. Aretha Franklin

Known as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin has to top any list of the best and most loved soul artists ever. 

Franklin captivated the stage from childhood when she sang gospel at her father’s church and signed with Columbia Records at 18. 

Some of Franklin’s biggest hits include the iconic “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Freeway of Love.”

She recorded 112 singles that made it to the Billboard charts, and won 18 Grammys, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked her number one in the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” list. 

Franklin led a long music career, beginning in 1954 until her death in 2018.

2. Marvin Gaye

Nicknamed the “Prince of Soul” or the “Prince of Motown,” legendary male soul singer Marvin Gaye helped shape the sound of Motown during the 1960s as an in-house session player and recording artist. 

Growing up, Gaye’s father, who would later fatally shoot him, was very abusive. Gaye started singing doo-wop music as an outlet for his home life. 

He gained national fame with his first hit single, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” He subsequently released his acclaimed album, What’s Going On, which became a massive inspiration during the civil rights movement.

During this 27-year career, he recorded a total of 67 singles that made it into the Billboard charts. He was also awarded posthumously a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. 

3. Stevie Wonder

Born Stevland Hardaway Morris, childhood prodigy Stevie Wonder has pioneered many music genres for over 60 years.

Wonder went blind shortly after he was born, but that didn’t stop him from showing his musical talent. He was signed by Motown Records at age 11 and had his first #1 single when he was only 13.

Over the next six decades, Wonder has revolutionized soul, jazz, pop, R&B, and funk music. He has also sold over 100 million records and won 25 Grammy awards.

Some of his most iconic hits include “Superstition,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Sir Duke,” and “For Once in My Life.” 

He is still quite active in the music industry up to this day.

4. James Brown

Nicknamed the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown was the forefather of American funk music, bringing soul and funk together. 

Brown came from very humble beginnings, born to teenage parents in a wooden shack in South Carolina. He dropped out of school during sixth grade and was imprisoned for robbery. 

It was there in prison that he met singer Bobby Byrd. Once released, he joined Byrd’s band, The Famous Flames.

Brown was legendary for his live performances, and his album Live at the Apollo catapulted his fame. Hits from that album include “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).” 

He sadly passed away on Christmas Day in 2006, ending his five-decade career. Brown left a legacy of at least 96 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. He also made at least 110 singles that charted on the Billboard R&B charts.

5. Sam Cooke

Also known as the “King of Soul,” Sam Cooke was a pioneering soul artist that inspired the careers of most of the well great soul singers we have today.

He was born Samuel Cook and added the “e” to his last name to signify the start of his solo career in 1957. In less than a decade, he released 29 singles that charted in the Billboard Top 40.

Some of Cooke’s hits include “Chain Gang,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” and “Cupid.” 

On December 11, 1964, however, Cooke’s life was cut short when he was fatally shot in a hotel in LA. Up to this day, the circumstances around his death are still a mystery. He was only 33.

6. Ray Charles

Often referred to as simply “The Genius,” Ray Charles is regarded as one of the most influential singers of all time. He pioneered the soul music genre by combining blues, jazz, R&B, and gospel.

Charles was raised by a single mother in Georgia. He lost his sight at age seven and learned classical piano with braille sheet music while attending Florida School for the Blind and Deaf.

Charles has one of the most recognizable voices in American music, with a three-octave range. His most famous hit is “Georgia On My Mind,” which got him two of his four Grammy awards.

He passed away in 2004 at the age of 73, ending his long 57-year career. He left a legacy of more than 60 original albums and an organization called The Ray Charles Foundation that provides support for young people with hearing disorders, as well as any academic or research services for hearing disabilities.

7. Whitney Houston

Nicknamed “The Voice,” Whitney Houston is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, selling over 200 million records worldwide. She is considered to be one of the most talented singers ever. 

Houston was born and raised in New Jersey and was part of a legendary musical family, with Aretha Franklin as her honorary aunt. 

Over her career, she won eight Grammys and sixteen Billboard music awards. She is also the only person ever to have seven consecutive #1 singles.

Some of her most iconic songs include “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Saving All My Love For You.” 

She tragically died in 2012 at the age of 48 due to complications of cocaine intoxication.

8. Otis Redding

Considered one of the greatest American singers of all time, Otis Redding is a pioneer in both soul and R&B music. 

Born into poverty in Georgia, he dropped out of school at 15 and helped support his family by playing in Little Richard’s backup band. 

Initially, Redding was mostly popular in the African American music scene and slowly grew a name for himself. He only reached national fame after his tragic death in a plane crash at age 26. 

His song “(Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay” was the first posthumous song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

9. Al Green

Sometimes referred to as “The Last Of The Great Soul Singers,” Al Green’s ongoing career has spanned over 60 years.

Raised in a conservative religious family, Green was kicked out of the house in his teens for listening to rock singer Jackie Wilson. This only encouraged his musical tendencies, and he formed his first band with classmates from his high school.

When Green’s girlfriend died by suicide, Green found religion again and started recording gospel music but has since returned to soul music.

Some of his great hits include “Let’s Stay Together,” “Take Me To The River,” and “Love And Happiness.” 

10. Irma Thomas

Known as the “Soul Queen Of New Orleans,” Irma Thomas is a contemporary of legends like Aretha Franklin with a career spanning over 50 years.

At age 19, Thomas was working as a waitress in New Orleans and had four children. None of that stopped her from pursuing her singing dreams. 

She sang with various New Orleans artists while waitressing and eventually signed to a record label and released the hit song “Breakaway.” 

Although she has never reached the commercial success of some of her contemporaries, her popularity is growing to this day, and she won her first Grammy in 2007.

She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance in 2018 and is still active in the music industry.

11. Ben E. King

Born Benjamin Earl Nelson, Ben E. King was a record producer, soul singer, and songwriter who had a flourishing group and solo career. 

Born in North Carolina, King moved with his family to Harlem in the 1940s and started singing with New York church choirs. He formed his first doo-wop group in high school. 

King is most famous for being the lead singer of The Drifters, where he sang their iconic classics “There Goes My Baby” and “This Magic Moment.” 

King left to go solo in 1960 when he wrote and recorded “Stand By Me,” considered one of the greatest songs ever recorded. 

During his 57-year career, King released 170 singles and 28 albums. He continued to perform in the early 2010s despite his ill health, and he died at 76 years old in 2015.

12. Anita Baker

Known for her extensive vocal range, contralto Anita Baker is one of the most popular ballad singers, at the height of her fame during the “quiet storm” period of the 1980s. 

Raised by a foster family in Detroit, Baker began singing R&B at nightclubs when she was 16. She was discovered at a club by David Washington, who was the leader of the funk band Chapter 8. Baker soon joined their band in 1975.

Once she went solo in 1982, Baker rose to stardom with her platinum-selling album Rapture, with the song “Sweet Love.”

Baker has won eight Grammy awards and has five platinum albums. 

13. Patti LaBelle

Born Patricia Louise Holte, Patti LaBelle has been making audiences groove for over seven decades. 

Born and raised in Philadelphia, LaBelle got her start in her career by singing in her church choir and broke into music when she was in her early twenties, singing with the band Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. 

It was with the band that she released the iconic “Lady Marmalade,” which brought her to the national stage and gave her the nickname “Godmother Of Soul.” 

LaBelle has sold over 50 million albums and won three Grammy awards. Some of her other hits include “On My Own” and “New Attitude.” 

14. Sam and Dave

Although not a solo artist, no list of soul singers can be complete without the iconic duo Sam Moore and Dave Prater, known professionally as simply Sam and Dave.

Sam and Dave came together while they were singing in the gospel circuit and clubs in Miami. These tenor and baritone powerhouses were nicknamed “Double Dynamite” and performed together for twenty years. 

Considered one of the greatest live acts of the 1960s, they had more chart successes than any soul artist apart from Aretha Franklin. 

Some of their greatest hits include “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” 

In 1988, however, Dave tragically died in a car accident. Sam Moore has since continued to perform as a solo artist up to this day.

15. Roberta Flack

An iconic soul ballad singer, Roberta Flack pioneered the contemporary R&B subgenre called “quiet storm.”

Like many others, Flack started singing gospel music at church in Virginia. She soon took to playing classical piano and was awarded a full music scholarship to Howard University.

Flack was the first person to win the Grammy for Best Record of the Year two consecutive times: in 1973 for her song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and once again in 1974 for “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”

In her five-decade career, she has recorded over 16 albums, both featuring solos and duets.

16. Curtis Mayfield

One of the most influential soul musicians and guitarists of all time, Curtis Mayfield was also an important political activist. 

Mayfield grew up in Chicago and got his first guitar at age 10. He said he loved it so much he would sleep with it at night. 

He taught himself to sing and play guitar and joined The Impressions when he was 14. He wrote most of the band’s songs and was one of the first artists to raise social and political awareness with his music. 

Martin Luther King named his song, “People Get Ready” the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. 

He went on to have a successful solo career beginning in 1970. In 1994, he was given the Grammy Legend Award, and only a year later, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

His career was cut short, however, when he passed away at the age of 57 due to complications of diabetes.

17. Lauryn Hill

Regarded as one of the best rappers of all time, Lauryn Hill has been the epitome of soul and R&B for the last three decades. 

Born and raised in New Jersey, she credits her family with teaching her to love music. She began her music career in high school with her group Translator Crew.

Hill has since broken many barriers for female rappers and brought both hip hop and neo-soul into the popular imagination. She has won eight Grammy awards—the most for any female rapper.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is one of her best-selling albums of all time, and some of her iconic beats include “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” and “Tell Him.” 

18. Wilson Pickett

One of the pioneers of the soul genre, Wilson Pickett also helped bridge R&B and pop music. 

Pickett was born and raised in Alabama and got his start in church music, moving to Detroit and joining the gospel group The Violinaires. 

He transitioned into soul music in the 1960s, bringing the depth of gospel with him. He started his solo career with ballads like “I’m Gonna Cry.”

Pickett rose to national fame with the song “In the Midnight Hour” and went on to have many chart-topping singles afterward, extending his music to other genres other than soul. In 1993, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

He went on to have a successful five-decade career before his death in 2006. He was posthumously inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2015.

19. Smokey Robinson

Motown and soul legend Smokey Robinson has been revolutionizing the music since 1955. His smooth voice is iconic, but he’s also a skilled songwriter and record producer. 

Robinson was born and raised in Detroit, and Aretha Franklin was his neighbor and childhood friend. 

He formed his first Motown group with school friends, and it later became the legendary group The Miracles. Some of The Miracles’s hits include “Shop Around” and “More Love.” 

The Beatles were major fans of Robinson and The Miracles, and they even covered their classic “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” in their second studio album. 

Robinson, however, retired from the group in 1972 and became a solo artist a year later. He is still active in the music industry up to this day.

20. Percy Sledge

Born and raised in Alabama, Percy Sledge was an R&B, soul, and gospel singer with some of the best-selling records of all time in the genre. 

He worked as a hospital orderly for many years while singing for small crowds on the weekends. One of his patients introduced him to producer Quin Ivy, who launched his career. 

Sledge’s first and most famous hit was “When A Man Loves A Woman,” which was #1 on the Billboard Singles Chart for months and was Gold-disc certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Some of his other hit songs include “Warm And Tender Soul,” “Take Time to Know Her,” and “It Tears Me Up.”

He died in 2015 after a long battle with liver cancer, ending his long 54-year music career.

21. Erykah Badu

Also known as the “Queen of Neo-Soul,” Erykah Badu pioneered the genre along with D’Angelo and Maxwell. 

Born Erica Abi Wright, Badu was raised by a single mother in Dallas and started performing at age four, singing and dancing at the Dallas Theater Center. 

Badu’s professional career began in 1994 when she opened a show for D’Angelo and caught the attention of record producer Kedar Massenburg, who signed her on the spot.

She soon released her first album, Baduizm, which was certified triple platinum. Some of Badu’s biggest hits include “Bag Lady,” “Cleva,” and “Otherside of the Game.” 

Her song “Master Teacher” became a cultural icon, popularizing the expression “stay woke,” which means being self-aware.

22. Dusty Springfield

Known as the “Great White Lady” of soul, Dusty Springfield is one of the only non-black musicians to break into and be respected in the genre. 

Springfield was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in Northwest London. She was taught to sing by her musical family and started singing professionally at a young age.

She caught the attention of other soul legends with her voice that transcended genres and was brought to fame in the UK and then the US. 

Her most famous song is “Son Of A Preacher Man,” and some of her other hits include “I’ll Try Anything” and “I Only Want To Be With You.”

She passed away in 1999 after a long bout with breast cancer. Two weeks after her death, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

23. Bobby Womack

One of the most beloved members of the soul genre, Bobby Womack’s 60-year career spanned soul, R&B, gospel, rock and roll, and doo-wop. 

Womack grew up impoverished in Cleveland but sang and played the guitar from a young age with his family. By the time he was 10, he and his brothers were touring Ohio as The Womack Brothers, later called the Valentinos. 

Sam Cooke saw Bobby and his brothers performing, and he became their mentor and helped them reach national acclaim. Some of the Valentino’s hits include “It’s All Over Now,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” and “Lookin’ For Love.” 

Womack soon began his solo career in the mid-70s, but his success started to slow down in 1994. He retired after this final concert in 2014. Only a few days after, he died at the age of 70.

24. Etta James

Born Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James was a soul and jazz singer who captivated audiences with her deep and romantic voice, which bridged the gap between R&B and rock and roll. 

James was born to a 14-year old mother and grew up mostly in foster homes around Los Angeles. Despite her oftentimes abusive childhood, she was inspired by doo-wop music and formed her first girl group at 14, The Creolettes.

She started her professional career in 1954, and her group was renamed Peaches. James was credited as the co-writer of their debut song “The Wallflower,” which was ranked #1 on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks chart in 1955.

In 1960, James pursued a solo career and released her first solo hit “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Over her 60-year career, she won six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. Some of her most iconic songs include “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.” 

James passed away in 2012 after a swift and hard battle with leukemia.

25. Mary J. Blige

Often referred to as the “Queen Of Hip Hop Soul,” Mary J. Blige is a singer, rapper, and songwriter. She has been one of the most influential voices in R&B for almost 40 years. 

Blige was born in the Bronx and raised in Atlanta. When she was 17, she made an impromptu recording of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up In The Rapture.” Her mother’s boyfriend showed it to a producer, which launched her career. 

Throughout Blige’s three-decade career, she has won nine Grammys and released 14 studio albums, all of which have topped the Billboard charts. Some of her most notable hits include “Family Affair” and “Real Love.” 

Aside from her music career, Blige has other ventures such as her own record label Matriarch Records. She has also starred in several films and TV shows, including “Power Book II: Ghost” and “The Umbrella Academy.”

Summing Up Our List Of Popular Soul Singers

Soul music is a wide genre of music, with everyone from church singers to rappers making the genre what it is today. 

Make sure you check out some of the great singers above. You might even find your new favorite song!

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.