Soul music is one of the most interesting and complex genres of music. Like the genre, soul singers are often complicated people who express themselves through their voices and melodic phrasing. The best soul singers inspire people – whether it be to cry, to smile, or to love, soul singers make people feel. Here, we present our comprehensive list of the top 10 best soul singers of all time. Ready to take a little trip back in time? Here we go!
Number Ten: Luther Vandross
Vandross might seem like the underdog on this list, but there’s no denying that the man was a total powerhouse. With the help of the late, great David Bowie, Vandross got his big break in 1974 when he sang backup on Young Americans. He continued on with huge hits like “Never Too Much” and “Give Me The Reason,” and he broke the Billboard Top 10 in 1989 with “Here And Now.”
Vandross suffered an unfortunate stroke in 2003, just after he finished the vocals for Dance with My Father. While he eventually recovered, his health was never the same as it once was. His last public appearance was on The Oprah Winfrey Show on May 6, 2004, and he died on July 1, 2005, when he was just 54 years old.
Number Nine: Smokey Robinson
Next on our list is the ever-iconic Smokey Robinson. Robinson worked closely with Motown founder Berry Gordy, and he was responsible for many of the label’s biggest hits. Robinson achieved new heights in the 1980s when he released hit singles “Being With You” and “Just To See You.” Robinson is now 76 years old and amazingly, he’s still touring!
Number Eight: James Brown
James Brown is one of the most iconic soul singers of all time, and his name is instantly recognizable. Brown released his first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” in 1956, and he continued to please the masses as he became known as “the hardest-working man in show business.” Brown devoted his entire life to his music and his admirers, seemingly always on tour somewhere. Brown churned out innumerable classics, but some of his most notable works include “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and “I Feel Good.”
Brown often ignored his own health so he could perform, and it eventually caught up to him in 2006. He visited his dentist on the morning of December 23, but he was late to the appointment, and his dentist noticed that Brown looked extremely groggy. Brown was admitted to the hospital and was optimistic he would get out in time to perform at New Jersey’s Count Basie Theatre on New Year’s Eve; however, he died on Christmas day.
Number Seven: Stevie Wonder
In the number seven slot, we bring you Stevie Wonder, who made his first his record when he was just 13 years old – barely a teenager! The hit in question is, of course, “Fingertips (Part 2).” Wonder was one of Motown’s most consistent hitmakers and continued to have success on his own after he turned 21. Some of Wonder’s most iconic hits include “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Superstition,” and “Part-Time Lover.” Wonder is now 65 years old and continues to tour. He truly is a force to be reckoned with.
Number Six: Al Green
Nobody screams “soul” quite like Al Green. Green grew up idolizing soul singers like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and he eventually came to join their ranks in the early 1970s when he released singles like “Tired Of Being Alone,” “Take Me To The River,” and “Let’s Stay Together.” Green’s path took a turn in the 1980s when he began recording gospel music exclusively, which he did until the mid-1990s. Green is now 69 years old, but his legacy lives on in the probable hundreds of children his music helped create.
Number Five: Ray Charles
In the number five position on our list of the best soul singers is none other than soul legend Ray Charles. Known just as the “Genius,” Charles truly was a brilliant mind who changed the genre of soul forever. His decade spanned six decades, and some of his biggest soul hits include “I Got A Woman,” “Night Time Is The Right Time,” and “Georgia On My Mind.”
Charles was one of the most versatile musicians of all time, capable of taking any song of any genre and turning it into his own. He died in his home in 2004 after contracting acute liver disease. He was surrounded by his friends and family when he passed, and he will forever be remembered as one of the world’s most iconic soul singers.
Number Four: Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke is a soul icon. Having inspired another person on this list (Al Green), it’s no wonder Cooke is in our number four position. Like many other successful soul singers, Cooke got his start in gospel music, but he turned secular in 1956 when he released “Lovable.” He had a string of hits in the following years, including “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” “You Send Me,” and “Another Saturday Night.”
Cooke was tragically shot and killed when he was just 33 years old, in 1964. He was at the peak of his career when he died, so there’s no telling how much more he would have accomplished had he not been killed.
Number Three: One of the Most Iconic Soul Singers – Marvin Gaye
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include Marvin Gaye on our list. Gaye got into Motown as an in-house session player at first, and later he became a solo artist. He was one of Motown’s most consistent hitmakers, churning out singles like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” and “Thinking About My Baby.”
After his string of solo hits, Gaye teamed up with Tammi Terrell to release behemoths like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.” Some would argue it’s after Terrell died that he truly hit his peak, though, because it wasn’t until after Terrell’s death that he released the What’s Going On LP. Gaye’s father shot and killed him in 1984, just as he was in the middle of his musical renaissance. He continues to be widely regarded as one of the greatest musicians – soul or otherwise – of all time.
Number Two: Aretha Franklin
The penultimate soul singer and only woman on our list is, of course, Aretha Franklin. Franklin got her start in her father’s church, and she released her debut album, Songs of Faith, at the tender age of 14 years old. However, it would be another decade or so until her talents were recognized by the masses. After Franklin signed to Atlantic, she churned out hit after hit, including “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman,” and “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).” She’s been named the greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone, and she’s undoubtedly inspired thousands of young girls to go after their dreams. The Queen of Soul is now 73 years old and continues to perform for her adoring fans.
Number One: Otis Redding
Finally, the best soul singer of all time is Otis Redding. Redding was born and raised in Georgia, and he got his start in music when he joined The Pinetoppers (Johnny Jenkins’ band) in 1958 after leaving school at the age of 15. Redding landed his first contract quite fortuitously after an unscheduled appearance on a Stax recording session. He then went on to release “These Arms of Mine” – his first single.
Redding died tragically in a plane crash when he was 26 years. Just months earlier, he had recorded “(Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay” – his most popular song of all time. Redding continues to be recognized as a legendary soul singer and is nearly synonymous with the genre of soul music. Thanks for reading!