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Best Female Soul Singers: 10 Soul Sirens That Deserve Love And Respect
List & Guides

Best Female Soul Singers: 10 Soul Sirens That Deserve Love And Respect

Singing from their hearts and finding a place in ours, the best female soul singers include music royalty and inspirational survivors.

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They’ve soothed, tempted and rocked us for decades, bringing us soul from the female point of view. We’re not talking girl power – though some of them started their careers as children – we’re talking woman power allied to soul power. Here are ten of the best female soul singers of all time – and we do mean the best.

Listen to our Soul playlist here, and check out our best female soul singers, below

10: Mary Wells (1943-1992)

Mary Wells sang in heart-warming tones that sounded more experienced than her age when she became Motown’s first female superstar, in the early 60s. Her voice charmed the world on hits such as My Guy, Two Lovers and The One Who Really Loves You, and her glamour helped a generation assert that Black is beautiful – a vitally important notion in an era where African Americans were fighting to be treated equally. Wells appeared successful, sassy and confident; however, her vocal sophistication was not entirely apparent until Smokey Robinson began to produce her, in 1962. His naturally gentle style allowed Wells to explore her softer side, resulting in a string of hits. But Wells, Motown’s biggest pop act at the time, and a huge influence over British singing legend Dusty Springfield, was unsatisfied with the lack of control she had over her career, and she jumped ship, first to 20th Century Fox, then Atco, where she made some superb records such as the delightfully floating Dear Lover. However, none of them were big hits. A musical union with her second husband, Cecil Womack (later of Womack & Womack), produced little chart action, though Wells continued to make records deep into the 80s – a connoisseurs choice among the best female soul singers. My Guy retains its allure, but it’s a pity the world overlooked her soulful later work.

Must hear: Dear Lover

9: Irma Thomas (1941-)

New Orleans’ “Soul Queen” should have been a bigger star. The Rolling Stones thought so: they heard Irma Thomas singing Time Is On My Side and decided to cover it. The Smithereens and Otis Redding did likewise with Ruler Of My Heart. But don’t go thinking Thomas was another raw-toned R&B belter from the Crescent City; she could – and did – do that, but she was vocally sophisticated, too, as anyone who heard Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) will, er, understand. Thomas was a class act, and had she been signed to bigger labels in the first half of the 60s, she might have been a soul superstar rather than a singer adored by educated ears. Records such as It’s Raining, Wish Someone Would Care and He’s My Guy charted, but the promotional muscle wasn’t there to boost her profile. Nonetheless, Thomas continued to cut amazing tracks deep into the 2010s, including a funky countryish album for Cotillion which fell through the cracks in 1971 and became a legendary “lost album”, eventually released as Full Time Woman. She remains acclaimed on the festival circuit, still as soulful as ever.

Must hear: Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)

8: Chaka Khan (1953-)

Had Chaka Khan only been the singer of funk-rock band Rufus, she’d still be regarded as one hell of a vocalist. Funky, assertive and possessed of striking looks, Khan would have been noticed in any band. However, Rufus required a jump-start to success, which came when Stevie Wonder donated a song to the group, Tell Me Something Good. This sinuous reggae-in-reverse ditty put the band on the map in 1974, and they charted on and off for a decade. But Khan was too big a personality to not become a solo star, and she broke through on her own with her 1978 anthem of emancipation, I’m Every Woman, following it with the R&B No.1 What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me and 1984’s I Feel For You, which benefited from Melle Mel’s rapped repetition of her name. Prince had written and recorded the song first, but Khan sure as funk made it her own. There was also Rufus’ Ain’t Nobody, another mighty hit. One of the few survivors of 70s funk who is as comfortable working with both hip-hop acts and a veteran such as Ray Charles, when Chaka Khan sings, she is the embodiment of woman power.

Must hear: I’m Every Woman

7: Esther Phillips (1935-1984)

When Aretha Franklin won the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1972, she handed it to another nominee, saying “She deserves it.” That nominee was Esther Phillips, one of the greatest, most idiosyncratic, long-suffering and sincere singers to take the mic. Born Esther Jones, she began singing in R&B bandleader Johnny Otis’ revue in 1949, billed as Little Esther, and took her stage name, Phillips, from a petrol station sign. She scored three R&B chart No.1s in 1950, including Double Crossing Blues and Mistreating Blues, which hinted at the dark life she’d be forced to lead (Phillips became a heroin addict in her teens). She then didn’t chart for ten years, until 1962’s Release Me, and signed to Atlantic in 1964, hitting with an interpretation of a Beatles ballad renamed And I Love Him; The Beatles adored it. She cut three albums for Atlantic, with notable singles including When A Woman Loves A Man, answering Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman, and the glorious Try Me. Further drug problems held Phillips back, however, and her star did not rise until she signed for Kudu, in 1971, for the From A Whisper To A Scream album, which included the Allen Toussaint-penned title track and Gil Scott-Heron’s addiction song Home Is Where The Hatred Is, delivered with a raw honesty which so impressed Aretha. Phillips scored a pop hit with What A Diff’rence A Day Makes in 1975, and continued to record impressive records. She passed away in 1984, from liver and kidney failure: she was 48 and had spent all her adult life fighting addiction. Her voice bravely revealed all her experience, good and ill.

Must hear: Try Me

6: Betty Wright (1953-2020)

Miami’s Betty Wright began her career at the age of two, singing in the family gospel group, and she cut the local hit Paralyzed when she was 12. But her Diana Ross-like tones were not noticeably juvenile. Wright scored her first national hit, Girls Can’t Do What The Guys Do, at 14, by which time her style had already matured considerably. Now signed to Alston Records, she revealed one of her hallmarks: songs offering advice. In 1971 she unleashed the classic Clean Up Woman, following up with other tales of sneakin’ around, including Babysitter, Is It You Girl and Secretary, before changing tack for 1974’s Shoorah! Shoorah! and the Islands-disco smash Where Is The Love the following year. A fabulous Southern-styled vocalist, Wright graced the R&B chart for the best part of 20 years and enjoyed occasional pop success, such as the UK hit Pain, in 1986. Producer, writer, label owner – she was the first Black female singer awarded a gold disc for an album released on her own label, in 1987 – Betty Wright worked with everyone from Alice Cooper to Bob Marley, Joss Stone and Questlove, and never compromised her formidable talents to do so.

Must hear: Clean Up Woman

5: Mavis Staples (1939-)

Singer, activist, living legend, Mavis Staples is uniquely beloved among the best female soul singers. She grew up singing in The Staple Singers, enjoying her first hit with the group, Uncloudy Day, in 1955. The Staples were perfect for the civil-rights era, mixing folk, gospel and R&B with ease, and their lead vocalists, Mavis and her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, sounded utterly engaged with the real world; closely linked to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, the group were leading musical lights of the moment. They signed to Stax in 1968 and translated their status into sales, thanks to glorious records such as Heavy Makes You Happy, Respect Yourself, I’ll Take You There and If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me). Mavis cut solo albums, too, broadening her approach somewhat, yet some old-school fans were shocked by the sensuality revealed in The Staples’ theme for the comedy movie Let’s Do It Again, penned by Curtis Mayfield, who also helmed Mavis’ wonderful 1977 soundtrack for A Piece Of The Action. Though comfortable with disco on Tonight I Feel Like Dancing, she never neglected her roots, as If All I Was Was Black and Bridges Instead Of Walls make clear. There is only one Mavis Staples, abundantly talented, full of heart and soul.

Must hear: A Piece Of The Action

4: Candi Staton (1940-)

R&B, soul, funk, disco, gospel, EDM: Candi Staton fits them all. She began singing on the gospel circuit in the 50s, and in 1968 the brilliant blind soul artist Clarence Carter took her to producer Rick Hall, who signed her to his Fame label. A minor hit with a version of the country weepie Stand By Your Man made the US pop chart in 1970, followed by a cut of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto. Staton’s ability to adapt material from sources other than soul was a valuable one: she covered The Doobie Brothers’ Listen To The Music and Bee Gees’ Nights On Broadway without losing an iota of her powerful identity. A switch to Warner Bros in 1974 raised her profile further, and she scored massively with Young Hearts Run Free in 1976, bringing a soul sensibility to disco dancefloors. After six albums for Warner, she grabbed a UK hit with Suspicious Minds on Sugar Hill, then focused on gospel for years. In 1986, You Got The Love, a track she recorded for a TV documentary, began being sampled on the dance scene, and it saw a standalone release in 1986, credited to The Source featuring Candi Station. It was a smash in the UK, charting three times and hitting No.3. Hot property again, Staton recorded widely in both secular and gospel traditions. Her unbreakable voice, Southern, strong yet revealing human vulnerability, was recently heard in British homes when her 1974 funky marvel A Little Taste Of Love was used on a TV advert. Married five times – “It’s been a wonderful life, but it hasn’t been a normal life,” she admits – Candi Staton is a true one-off among the best female soul singers of all time.

Must hear: A Little Taste Of Love

3: Roberta Flack (1937-)

Roberta Cleopatra Flack’s breakthrough, in the early 70s, suited the singer-songwriter trend which also gave the world James Taylor, Bill Withers and Carole King. However, Flack, who released her first album in 1969, after an audition at Atlantic where she sang 42 songs straight, was slightly different: she was primarily an interpreter. But when Flack performed a song, she may as well have written it: her grip on the melody and lyrics was total. Back then, however, she left many listeners bewildered: was she a soul singer? A jazz artist? Her voice was so pure, so perfect, so educated, it did not conform to soul’s testifying template. But for sure she was soulful and, in her own dignified way, she displayed her emotions as much as any other singer. Covering subjects from Black liberation (Go Up Moses) to arresting passion (The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face), her remarkably precise voice turned reason into emotion, and vice versa. Her 70s duets with Donny Hathaway made them the premier male-female duo of the era, and her records such as Killing Me Softly and Feel Like Makin’ Love are a permanent part of pop culture. Her third album was called Quiet Fire, which is exactly what she delivered.

Must hear: Killing Me Softly

2: Gladys Knight (1944-)

If it’s possible for a singer to be so consistently brilliant that her talent is almost taken for granted, then that’s Gladys Knight. The Atlanta-born singer has made so many wonderful records since the early 60s that it’s incredible that few people speak of her as one of the best female soul singers of her generation. With her male backing singers, The Pips, she scored with Every Beat Of My Heart, in 1961, and rapidly developed a reputation far stronger than her records’ chart performances. Motown boss Berry Gordy was so worried that Gladys Knight And The Pips might present a threat to The Supremes that he signed them – better to have them inside the camp than competing. Knight quickly built up such an amazing, if under-promoted, catalogue at Motown, including Everybody Needs Love, Walk In My Shoes, Friendship Train and more, that when her contract came to an end, she was snapped up by Buddah, where she delivered a series of supremely soulful records which nonetheless also appealed to a mature audience, such as Midnight Train To Georgia and her unbeatable version of The Way We Were. Knight continued to chart deep into the 80s, and was just as adept at disco as she was soul. She’s a convincing film and television actor, too, and remains an awe-inspiring vocalist, as anyone who saw her performances as Bee on the US edition of The Masked Singer, in 2020 – at the age of 75 – can testify. Knight is still firing on all cylinders: give her the love and respect she deserves.

Must hear: The Look Of Love

1: Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

Aretha Franklin wasn’t the first singer called “Lady Soul” – that was Vi Redd – but for Franklin, the title stuck. You can add the title “Queen Of Soul” to that, too. Her status was justified, despite a sticky start that saw her release ten albums to only a modicum of success. When she signed to Atlantic in 1967, however, her world changed ours: Franklin reconnected to her gospel roots and set her soul free. The result was without compare, and her career flowered, resulting in soul glories that still resonate: Respect, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Chain Of Fools, I Say A Little Prayer, Rock Steady… In the 70s, Franklin cut gospel records, funky records, disco-ish records and MOR records, but her status was unshakable. In subsequent decades, stars such as Annie Lennox, Whitney Houston, James Brown, George Michael, Elton John and Mariah Carey queued to duet with her and test their skills against the best. The winner was never in doubt. Topping our list of the best female soul singers of all time, Aretha Franklin is soul royalty, indeed.

Must hear: That’s All I Want From You

She’s topped our list of the best female soul singers of all time. Now find out where Aretha Franklin ranks among our best female singers of any genre.

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