From the start, soul music has risen out of the lived experiences of Black people, with Black women acting as some of its most influential and powerful creative ambassadors.
The vocal stylings and talents that Black female soul singers have brought to the genre since its rise to prominence have left an indelible impact – not just on the world of soul but also on musical trends that transcend genre globally.
She was not known as the “Queen of Soul” for nothing. Aretha Franklin was one of the first figures of the soul genre. Her voice crashed onto the scene in 1956 with an album called Songs of Faith at the exceptionally young age of 14.
That album did not become especially popular, but it was the springboard for her career. Every time she released new music, she gained new devotees. Once you encountered her unparalleled voice that could climb so effortlessly through octaves with which even skillful singers would struggle, you started listening nonstop.
She could oscillate so comfortably between booming power and delicately gentle sounds, and the songs she sang worked so perfectly well with her voice.
Throughout her career, she had 45 Top 40 hits land on the Billboard Hot 100 list. She also released 20 singles that reached number one on the Billboard R&B charts and received 20 Grammy Awards. Aretha became the first woman to ever be inducted into the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2008, Rolling Stone named her the “Greatest Singer of All Time.” That sums it all up.
Mavis Staples has accomplished something very few other musicians and vocalists have: infusing a robust social agenda into genuinely beautiful and creative music.
Staples first became known as a member of the Staples Singers, a family-based Gospel group that became known as “God’s Greatest Hitmakers.” She was the youngest daughter of Roebuck “Pops” Staples – the group’s patriarch – but her young age did not prevent her from standing out from her family as a uniquely gifted vocalist.
Her roots in explicitly Christian Gospel music proved to be fertile ground for her work in the civil rights movement. Her music underscored much of the movement, with people playing many of her songs at rallies. Tracks like “Freedom’s Highway” and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” were widely popular in that context.
Staples is still alive today and recently has put out her newest album, a collaboration with Ben Harper called “We Get By.” She has been evolving musically throughout her life, including rare collaborations with indie and folk artists like Justin Vernon and Nick Cave.
The lines between the Soul, Gospel, and Rock-N-Roll genres are blurry, and no one leans into their similarities better than Tina Turner.
Turner had an earth-quakingly powerful stage presence when she performed, but she never lost the deep, raw emotionality of the Soul genre. Just as Aretha was the “Queen of Soul,” Tina Turner was named the “Queen of Rock-n-Roll.”
Her popularity began when she was touring with her future husband, Ike Turner, as a group called the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has named their partnership as one of history’s most formidable live acts.
Both the marriage and performance collaboration between Ike and Tina Turner tragically ended in 1976 when Ike’s cocaine addiction got in the way of the pair’s relationship, leading in part to him physically assaulting Tina. That event led not only to the disintegration of their group but also their marriage.
In the 1980s, however, Turner returned to the stage as a solo act. She solidified the widespread belief that she had been the true powerhouse between her and Ike. Some of her biggest hits arrived during her solo era, and her work is still revered today.
Gladys Knight’s classic fusion of pop and soul has proven to be a blueprint for many singers in the contemporary landscape. Songs like “Midnight Train to Georgia” rocketed her to prominence in the public eye and allowed her to impress the world with her emotion and gravitas.
Knight’s career first began with a family band called The Pips, a quintet composed of her, her brother, her sister, and two of their cousins. Gladys’ distinctively compelling vocal stylings soon led her to be the group’s frontwoman, and the group changed its name to Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Knight is notable among soul singers for her lack of improvisation in her music – not because she was incapable of doing so, but rather because she approached her songs with a seriousness that demanded rigor.
She also stands out because she has had a minor yet fascinating acting career that has bobbed alongside her music since 1975. In that year, she teamed up with members of the Pips to create a short-lived variety show called The Gladys Knights and The Pips Show. Just a year later, she starred in the movie Pipe Dreams and received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
There are not many singers out there who can start their song with 45 seconds of a capella vocals and have it reach the level of critical and popular acclaim. Whitney Houston did just that with her cover of “I Will Always Love You.”
That is just one of many of the clear testimonies to the uniqueness of Houston’s voice, which blended weighty power with the capacity to effortlessly run across the octaves.
Houston, surprisingly enough, did not first come to prominence as a singer – her first step into the world stage was as a model, one of the first Black women to appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine.
But once she started singing, she couldn’t stop. She released her first album, Whitney Houston, in 1985, at the age of 22. Fourteen short years later, her artistic and vocal prowess was sufficiently established that she was certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as the best-selling female R&B artist of the 20th century.
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is perhaps the most widely-beloved artist of the 21st century. Her combination of genre-defying artistic creativity and undeniably virtuosic vocal skills has led her to incredible accomplishments. For example, she became the first solo artist whose first six studio albums have started at #1 on the Billboard 200. Plus, she’s the most-awarded artist in the history of the Grammy awards.
The start of her musical career came with her over 10-year participation in Destiny’s Child, a pop/R&B group. Her solo career started with a collaboration with her future husband Shawn Corey Carter, known musically under the name Jay-Z.
Some might not place Beyoncé in the genre of Soul music – most of its primary figures live in the memories of the 20th century, and Beyoncé is most frequently defined as a pop or R&B artist. But the fundamental features of Soul – a fusion of Blues and Gospel rhythms with a focus on deeply passionate, personal-sounding vocals – certainly undergird her music.
Roberta Flack is another giant of the genre – she is known for her work on massively popular singles like “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” Many of her more well-known tracks were duets with Donny Hathaway, a frequent collaborator. When their voices teamed up together, they made magic.
Her significant popularity was present for a reason. Her capacity to communicate significant emotion while maintaining a mostly laid-back style was overwhelming to audiences, and she became the first-ever artist to win back-to-back Grammy Awards for Record of the Year two years in a row.
Flack had a significant influence on one of R&B’s major subgenres of the late 20th century: Quiet Storm. The genre’s name comes from Smokey Robinson’s album Quiet Storm, and it is characterized by a distinctive fusion of smooth R&B vocals, mellow vibes, and jazz structures.
Her relationship with the genre has been contentious at times, with some critics finding her more mellow, reserved style out of touch with the raw emotionality of Soul music. But despite critics, Flack has been beloved for decades and will continue to be for decades to come.
Chaka Khan is another contentious pick for the genre of Soul specifically – her wheelhouse has more broadly been considered to be Funk music (she is known as the “Queen of Funk”), but the lines between genres here are once again blurry and Khan’s music is so beautifully emotional and rhythmic that it would be a crime not to include her here.
Her career lasted over 50 years. She started in the 1970s as a part of the group Rufus – a funk band of which she was the lead singer. She slowly transitioned to primarily solo work at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s and found even more success on her own than she had with Rufus.
Throughout her career, she became the first R&B artist to create a hit that crossed the R&B and rap genres, won ten different Grammy Awards, and published a total of seven albums that hit gold and three that hit platinum.
For a genre both created and popularized by African-Americans, someone with as global an upbringing as Sade seems a little out of place. Still, she deserves her spot on this list with every ounce of her being.
Helen Folasade Adu, CBE is her real name, and she is a Nigerian-born and UK-raised artist who is one of the most successful British female artists in the country’s history.
Like Whitney Houston, her other creative career achieved success before her musical one, as she was a somewhat successful fashion designer and model. But that fell to the side when she joined up with the band Pride in 1980. She then achieved mass popularity when she struck out on her own, creating a band of her own called Sade.
Since having done so, the artist has received immense acclaim, and rightfully so. She is still performing today.
Lauryn Hill is a gem of soul music writ-large, and one of the founding pillars of neo-soul. She has only released one studio album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but it was a massive success that hit the musical landscape of her time like a meteorite.
With just one studio album, she has won more Grammy Awards than any other female rapper in history, and many consider her one of the best rappers of all time. Despite her vast creative talents and acclaim, she has decided to draw back from public life in both music and dramatic performance.
She has limited her public work to very intentional and sporadic creative events, like performances and festival appearances.
Bettye LaVette is a fascinating case among soul talents – even though she has been performing since 1962, she only became a more prominent singer relatively recently, upon the release of her 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. She has a distinct, eclectic style to her music, fusing blues, rock and roll, soul, funk, gospel, and country genres, though she is most at home in blues and soul.
After the widespread success of I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise and her follow-up The Scene of the Crime, her record label re-released Child of the Seventies, one of her earliest albums from 1972. To no one’s surprise, that re-release also met with critical acclaim.
She has shown a genre-defying fearlessness seldom seen in musicians of her echelon, not only in how she fuses genres, but also in how she engages them. For example, she recently released an album that primarily covered Bob Dylan songs.
For all her achievements, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2020.
Best Black Female Soul Singers, Final Thoughts
Contemporary music would not be the same without the vast, gorgeous, hugely powerful contributions of Black women.
The soul genre has had a huge impact on the musical (and non-musical) world, and Black female excellence has been a core part of the genre since its inception, from Aretha to Beyonce.