You may already be familiar with the sounds of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, but chances are you might not have heard these Southern soul musicians yet.
Photo: Ann Peebles

Classic Southern Soul Singers You Need To Know

A List Of The Best Under-The-Radar Southern Soul Singers

There’s so much to learn about music that it can be overwhelming for new and longtime listeners alike. Which is why today we’re talking about Southern soul music, a genre that emerged from country, blues and gospel to become its own genre that changed the trajectory of popular music in America.

Southern soul music first gained popularity in the 1960s, when local crowds in Southern states began to have a demand for more soulful and less rural music. Although the genre was still new, it offered everything other music at the time didn’t: a more upbeat tempo, more urban-like sounds, and deeper vocals. Of course, the biggest difference was the sound of gospel and blues music that predominated into these deep soul songs. Soul also served as a precursor for later genres like funk, which in turn helped pave the way for modern music as we know it – from hip-hop to R&B to techno.

Today, we’re going to be taking a look at southern soul music through some of its best singers. Southern soul music talent comes in all shapes and sizes, and some of these artists are criminally underrated. You may already be familiar with the sounds of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, but chances are you might not have heard these Southern soul musicians yet. So without further ado, here are the best Southern soul singers you need to know.

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Lee Moses: Southern soul music with a rock twist

A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, Lee Moses cut his teeth in the clubs of Atlanta, home to R&B legend Gladys Knight. He frequently performed alongside her and was courted by her band but declined offers due to his desire to make it as a solo artist. While he was living in New York in the ‘60s, Moses began playing backup for pre-fame Jimi Hendrix and worked as a session player for other acts. In 1971, Moses’ dream of being front stage was realized when he released his seminal LP Time And Place. Greeted with little fan fare at the time, the album has gone on to be highly coveted by soul enthusiasts. Despite critical acclaim, Moses faded into obscurity and there is still something of a mystery surrounding his work, an overlooked soul singer whose rare and airy wail confounded expectations at every turn. His novel approach to rhythm and blues, often incorporating aspects of gospel and rock into his repertoire, made him a cult figure in the eyes of critics but never a household name.

Ann Peebles: Larger-than-life gospel-infused soul

Barely five-feet tall, Ann Peebles’ powerful singing voice emanated from a mighty, larger-than-life figure whose stage presence earned her admiring glances from the first time she stampeded onto the Memphis music scene during the ‘60s. Peebles possessed an astonishing versatility that allowed her to sing in myriad musical styles. Her deep, smoky voice rose out of her tiny frame like a spirit, challenging audiences to grasp the complexities and contradictions of being a woman. The statuesque Peebles used the stage as a platform for her art and an alternative to commercial radio. She fused gospel, blues, and R&B into a cohesive sound—and then split that sound in two with her 1972 smash hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain” (a song that’s since been sampled countless times, perhaps most famously by Timbabland on Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly”). Peebles gave the blues a soulful twist, triumphantly weaving it into underground pop culture while becoming one of the most prolific female soul singers ever.

O.V. Wright: True southern soul music with serious zeal

O.V. Wright is a man who sings like he’s bringing you a message from the Gods. Which is fitting for a singer who got his start in the southern gospel circuit before moving to soul. Wright’s unique style was one of true Southern soul music that had a uniqueness that swayed back-and-forth between country and blues. His southern roots added depth to his sound and made him a perfect fit into the landscape of Southern soul music at that time. You’ll find some serious zeal when it comes to O.V. Wright once you start digging into the depths of his catalog, and he’s certainly one of the best male soul singers of all-time. While not as prolific as some of soul’s other pioneers, Wright’s discography is nothing short of excellent. Covering every decade from 1960 to the late 1980s, his work remains as incredible now as it was then. When it comes down to it, O. V. Wright is one musician who cannot be fully appreciated until you listen for yourself.

Wendy Rene: Southern soul for the hip-hop generation

When it comes to the birth and building of great soul music, most people know about Memphis and Stax Records, one of the most important and influential record labels in soul music history. But fewer know about Wendy Rene, the 1960s singer who quit music after the untimely death of Otis Redding in 1967 and whose music was revived through hip-hop samples in the ’90s. Rare for the time, Wendy Rene only recorded songs she had written. She enlisted Booker T. and the MG’s as her backing band, including on “Bar-B-Q,” which became a local hit and was successful enough that she left school to make a go of it as a performer. None of Wendy Rene’s singles charted nationally, but she continues to be remembered for one song – “After Laughter, Comes Tears,” which was sampled by the RZA on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Tearz.” and later by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Alicia Keys and many others. While “After Laughter…” looms large in Rene’s legacy as a Southern soul singer, the rest of her work is some of the most overlooked Southern soul music from Stax’s golden age.

Johnnie Frierson: Powerful music with a positive message

Former Stax Records singer Johnnie Frierson may be better known to most as Wendy Rene’s brother – the pair recorded a little-heard session in the mid-1960s for Stax Records as the four-piece group The Drapels, and then it all went a bit quiet for Johnnie Frierson. That is until a collection of his home recordings, Have You Been Good to Yourself? was uncovered at a Memphis thrift store and released by Light In The Attic records. Originally recorded in the mid-’60s, the songs on Have You Been Good to Yourself? are proof that Rene wasn’t the only member of her family with musical talent. Carved like a stone sculpture, Johnnie Frierson’s down-home style of singing and his guitar-playing are both seasoned and spiritual, and much of his themes are overtly religious in nature. But his songs are also timeless and full of wisdom, as evidenced on the title track, a mantra on clean living perfectly suited for these tumultuous times.

Irma Thomas: Anyone who listens will understand

It’s hard to understand why Irma Thomas has never been as visible as her fellow soul singers, but it’s certainly one of the under-sung stories of American music. Irma Thomas has been a mainstay of the New Orleans music scene for more than five decades, and in all that time she’s earned herself a small army of lifelong fans. While her catalog is varied and excellent through and through, you cannot hear the name Irma Thomas without her singing “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” a song which helped her gain new fans after being aired on an episode of the Netflix show Black Mirror. It’s a song that sounds like it comes from a different era, thanks in no small part to Irma’s incredible delivery and the string section that provides the dramatic rhythmic support.