While many people would classify artists on a list of American soul musicians as African-American, you may be surprised to find a few blue-eyed soul singers as well. When it comes to soul music, it's often less about the race and more about the singer's background and upbringing.
To understand the soul genre and how it fits into the American musical landscape, it's important to understand history first. Soul is a blend of traditional gospel and rhythm and blues. When African or African-American slaves gathered for church services, their vocal and active congregations were in marked contrast to their masters'. Hand clapping and plenty of "call and response," which originated in black churces, found their way into soul music as well.
Famous American Soul Musicians
These are some of the more well-known, but far from all, musicians classified in the soul category:
- Bobby Bland: Sometimes called the "Lion of the Blues," Bobby "Blue" Bland as he's popularly known, had 60s hits with Turn on the Lovelight and Cry Cry Cry.
- Mary J. Blige: Known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to many, Mary J. Blige has crafted a career out of her soulful and melodic voice. Her string of hits is long, including songs like Real Love and Be Without You.
- James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, Brown began singing with gospel groups and moved into blues, soul and R&B. He was also referred to as "the hardest working man in show business" as his stage routines included plenty of fancy footwork by the legendary Brown.
- Ray Charles: This piano-playing genius merged several musical genres, including R&B, blues, soul and gospel. He explored other genres as well, such as jazz and pop. This unforgettable performer is an icon on any list of musicians.
- Sam Cooke: Considered one of soul music's pioneers and enjoying most of his success in the late 1950s and early 60s, Cooke had hits with You Send Me and A Change Is Gonna Come.
- Aretha Franklin: Who can dispute her Queen of Soul title? Franklin's roots go back to gospel, where she began singing in her father's church. Her musical success began in the 1960s, scoring her a multitude of hits, such as Respect, Think and Chain of Fools.
- Marvin Gaye: His career spanned most of the 60s through the 80s until his tragic death. He performed with Tammi Terrell on a number of songs, but also enjoyed plenty of solo success.
- Al Green: Like many other soul musicians, Green had a background in gospel music. His songs have straddled both genres, and hits include Let's Stay Together and Love and Happiness.
- Isaac Hayes: Not only is he a ground-breaking musician, Hayes is also a prolific songwriter known for composing music for 1971's smash film Shaft.
- Taylor Hicks: A "blue-eyed soul" singer, this American Idol winner's style was always closer to that of soul singing than pop music.
- Etta James: Her hit At Last is one of the most played and memorable soul songs of all time.
- Gladys Knight: With The Pips backing her up, Gladys Knight released some of the most soulful songs of her group's career, mainly during the 60s and 70s. If I Were Your Woman, Neither One of Us and Midnight Train to Georgia are just a few of their most well-known hits.
- Teena Marie: This Ivory Queen of Soul may not have appeared to be a soul singer until she opened her mouth. Many radio listeners believed she was African American until they saw her. Pairing with funk-master Rick James on several tunes, she enjoyed solo success as well.
- Teddy Pendergrass: He began with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, but moved onto a solo career that spanned the 70s.
- Otis Redding: Dying in a plane crash right before his biggest hit, (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, was released, Redding's influence is still being felt today.
- Sam & Dave: This popular 1960s duo didn't get along offstage, but their onstage chemistry worked. Hits include Soul Man and I Thank You.
- Barry White: Who could forget his incredibly deep, rich baritone voice? Few could, and his soulful vocals sang many couples into romantic splendor from the 70s through the 90s.
In the late 1980s, a new genre emerged, defined by the classic soul sound but for the modern audience. Artists tagged as neo-soul musicians include Maxwell, Angie Stone, India.Arie, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo and Jill Scott.
A list of American soul musicians can get incredibly lengthy, especially when the line between soul, blues and R&B music is blurred. Other singers who can straddle both genres include:
- Anita Baker
- Clarence Carter
- The Delfonics
- The Dramatics
- Roberta Flack
- Anthony Hamilton
- Donny Hathaway
- Phyllis Hyman
- Isley Brothers
- Linda Jones
- Ben E. King
- Johnny Mathis
- Curtis Mayfield
- Michael McDonald
- The O'Jays
- Wilson Pickett
- Lou Rawls
- The Righteous Brothers
- Smokey Robinson
- Nina Simone
- The Temptations
- Tammi Terrell
- Luther Vandross
- Bill Withers
- Bobby Womack
- Betty Wright
A Mixture of Sound
Because soul music can be confused with R&B, there's not always a solid distinction between genres. Add the fact that soul is often comprised of gospel and blues elements, and you may find some of your favorites missing from this list. As long as you know who you consider to be a soul singer, that's all that counts.