Soul music originally refers to gospel sung passionately by Black artists; today however it encompasses various Black cultural productions like music, dance, fashion, foodways and language styles as well as activism for civil rights.
Three major record labels were key in popularizing soul music: Atlantic Records in New York City, Motown Records in Detroit and Stax/Volt Records in Memphis.
1. Wilson Pickett
Wilson Pickett began his musical journey as a gospel group singer before moving to Detroit and becoming part of The Falcons R&B band, featuring future Stax members Eddie Floyd and Mack Rice – later Stax Musicians themselves!
At Atlantic Records’ first session at Stax, Jerry Wexler used Pickett’s vocal energy to compose one of the greatest soul music songs ever: In the Midnight Hour. Guitarist Steve Cropper had noted how often Pickett sang at night.
Pickett used the fiery intensity of black gospel music to animate his timeless songs about earthly romance, and was an innovator across soul, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll genres. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Pickett died in 2006. Mustang Sally stands as an emblematic example of this genre-crossing artist’s music — an example that remains popular to this day.
2. Stax Records
Stax Records was founded by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton as Satellite Records in 1957 before changing to Stax (to reflect how music fans stacked albums at that time). They quickly established themselves as hitmakers by adding rhythm section and studio facilities; producing hits by Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers and Booker T & the MGs among others.
Motown founder Berry Gordy established Motown as an insular and cold empire; by contrast, Stax Records produced warm and soothing sounds, with singers such as Johnnie Taylor’s soulful rendition of “Who’s Making Love to Your Baby” and Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme song being equally beloved among both black and white audiences. Unfortunately financial difficulties ultimately doomed Stax; their catalog was sold off to Fantasy Records who continue reissuing Stax/Volt material under both logos.
3. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin made her mark both within gospel music and secular pop. Working with producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, she produced classic albums such as Live at Fillmore West and Amazing Grace during her prolific 1970s career.
She became an icon of black pride during the 1960s, with songs featuring this theme often hitting top 10 pop charts.
Her powerful voice was a weapon used in the civil rights movement. Her songs, particularly Sam Cooke’s “Respect,” inspired listeners and gave momentum to the cause. Her ability to fuse gospel vocals with innovative piano playing in secular love songs set her apart as one of the world’s most influential recording artists of all time.
4. Donny Hathaway
Hathaway became one of the great soul musicians of his era. Born in Chicago but spending much of his early life in St. Louis where his grandmother sang gospel professionally he began developing as a musician within church settings.
His duets with Roberta Flack earned them a Grammy, while his solo recordings are integral to soul music’s foundation. His musical legacy extends from R&B singers such as Alicia Keyes and Aaliyah to rapper Common and guitarist George Benson.
At just 33 years old, he made a profound mark in soul music through his powerful vocal range and songwriting talents – revolutionizing genres such as R&B while inspiring many artists around the globe. Even today his legacy remains strong – inspiring many around the globe with his songs and inspiring new generations to take up soul music as an art form.
5. Barry White
Barry White was a popular soul/funk singer who collaborated with various artists during his long career. His unique sound combined gospel, R&B, and funk into an irresistibly appealing sound, which quickly made him an institution in pop culture as well as African American communities alike. Barry’s engaging performance style made him an irreplaceable entertainer who dedicated his efforts towards providing his fans with great musical experiences.
Listening to his songs – from Donna Summer’s steamy love song “Love Unlimited” and George Benson’s smooth “Ain’t No Sunshine”, both timeless classics – remains popular today. His collaborations helped expand his influence and shape various music genres worldwide; also inspiring future generations of musicians to follow in his footsteps – it is clear why he remains one of the most prominent soul music names ever.
6. Erykah Badu
Erykah Badu is one of the most influential soul music artists of her generation. Her distinctive sound blends elements from hip-hop, jazz, funk and African music to form her distinctive neo-soul style; Badu is often referred to as the Queen of Neo-Soul.
Born Erica Abi Wright in Dallas, Texas, Badu attended Booker T. Washington High School – an arts magnet school – before going on to study theatre at Grambling State University in Louisiana. She eventually abandoned her slave name for that of Erykah Badu (which stands for Nigerian-Cameroonian for “warrior”).
Her 1997 debut album ‘Baduizm’ was highly lauded, marking a turning point in her career and kickstarting what has now been labeled as the neo-soul movement. Since then she has collaborated with artists such as The Roots, Common, and D’Angelo.
7. Dusty Springfield
Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, better known by her stage name of Dusty Springfield, was a British singer-songwriter during the Beat Boom of the 1960s. She ditched her suburban roots for an extravagant public persona featuring platinum blonde beehive hair, vibrant outfits, and colored contacts.
Dusty first began her career in a short-lived girl group called the Lana Sisters alongside Dion (known under his stage name Tom Springfield). Once that group disbanded, Dusty changed to reinventing herself as Dusty.
Dusty in Memphis became an influential work, inspiring many R&B soul musicians in its wake. Shelby Lynne released a tribute album to Springfield called Just a Little Lovin’ in 2008 which features songs from Dusty in Memphis as well as other parts of her back catalog.
8. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder was an astounding child prodigy since shortly after birth and made his professional debut with Motown at 11. His first song release – Is That All There Is, written as a duet with Otis Redding – became a global smash hit.
Wonder revolutionized soul music with his innovative blend of funk, jazz and R&B albums. While he was known as an expert at Motown-inspired tunes, his own unique compositions featured Tin Pan Alley chord changes and reggae-influenced energy for R&B energy with reggae influences from Africa rhythms.
Stretch & Bobbito, one of the world’s most-honored artists with 25 Grammy awards to his name and memberships in Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, discuss nearly getting dropped by Motown; advocating for Martin Luther King Day to become an official national holiday; as well as mourning Prince on their latest episode.
9. Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye was an important early pioneer of soul music, popularizing its style during the 1950s and 60s with musical roots from gospel, blues, jazz and other genres such as R&B.
Motown pioneer, one of the first black artists to sign a multimillion-dollar record contract. His groundbreaking album What’s Going On broke all expectations by exploring political and social topics including poverty, war and racism – offering unique social commentary.
This song from Gaye’s album also incorporates elements of African American gospel music, with her affirming “right on” to men who respond by affirming back with “right on.” Soul music’s sense of community and shared redemption defines its essence; with songs like this and “Let’s Get It On,” Gaye became one of its foremost artists.
10. Brook Benton
Brook Benton, known for writing R&B and pop hits in the late 1950s and early 1960s, died Saturday at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Queens after succumbing to pneumonia.
Benjamin Franklin Peay began his musical career at an early age singing in a Methodist church choir under his father’s baton as choir master. Moving to New York during the early 1950s he worked at garment company while singing nightly in clubs alongside drawling Louisiana singer Tony Joe White.
Benton began his career writing songs for artists like Nat King Cole and Clyde McPhatter before emerging as a performer himself with 1959 hit, “It’s Just a Matter of Time”. Other chart hits followed, including “Endlessly” and “Thank You Pretty Baby”, earning Benton much acclaim along the way – as did duet performances with Mercury labelmate Dinah Washington.