Rock n roll is unequivocally the defiant, rebellious offspring of traditional soul music; it’s questioned authority, thrown tantrums, talked back to its teachers and elders, and stormed out of rooms. Filled with and fueled by unquenchable passion, rock both snarled at the floor in the darkest basements and smiled at the sky from the highest penthouses. Rock music cursed at itself in the mirror, yelled in its parents’ faces, aggressively stood up for those in need, and cried the hardest at funerals.
The globally popular and universally influential music genre has undergone a number of changes, transitions, and alterations during its near 80-year existence. Regardless of which traits spawned its numerous sub-genres, most listeners have an idea of the basic characteristics that define a rock song. But here’s a better question: What makes a rock song soulful?
Some may consider it improper, even rude to answer a question with a question, but an honest, appropriate response is this: What does your heart tell you? Listen with your mind, body, and spirit; does it move you, giving the chills? Does it touch those sensitive areas in your being that drive tears from eyes or cause one to sway their body repeatedly from left to right? And who are those most soulful rock singers?
SoulTrain.com knows exactly who they are, and only we could properly compile an esteemed and important list of the top 25 most soulful rock singers! Over the past year we played numerous songs and albums, watched lots of music videos and concert footage, and engaged in opinionated conversations with other music experts, producers, and recording artists and musicians to narrow our selections. Read on to learn who made the cut!
Prince is not generally categorized as a rock singer, but when His Royal Badness commits himself to singing rock or rock-inspired tunes the results are outstanding! With songs like “U Got the Look” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” it was impossible not to include him on this list.
#24 Joe Cocker
Gritty-voiced Englishman Joe Cocker grunted and moaned to music, struggling up notes that sent shockwaves through listeners’ bodies. Cocker is one of the true icons of rock music’s soul revolution. Usually backed by lingering electric guitars and humming bass cords, Cocker’s bluesy delivery screamed soulful.
#23 Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam)
There is an almost gospel-like quality to Eddie Vedder’s singing style. A pioneer of the Seattle grunge movement who evolved light years beyond the ‘90s-born sub-genre, the Pearl Jam front man remains one of the most passionate rock singers alive today, and ever.
#22 Citizen Cope
There’s a reason fans across America and beyond flock in droves to Citizen Cope’s shows when his tours roll through their backyards. Each breath from the Memphis-born singer’s lungs has the air of southern hospitality.
#21 Lajon Whitherspoon (Sevendust)
In an interview with SoulTrain.com, Sevendust lead singer Lajon Whitherspoon said this of his soulfulness: “I bring the soul because I consider myself a soul singer. I believe people believe and feel conviction, and that’s where I come from with my singing. It’s real. I hope it never stops me because I can’t undo that.”
Co-founder and lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Anthony Kedis’ blues and funk-influenced wails made a new generation of rockers and rock fans retrace the genre’s roots, bringing widespread love for his group and the legends they immolated.
#19 John Mayer
John Mayer and his guitar are the evolution of BB King and Lucille; they speak to one another as well as their listeners. Their combined voices are incredibly soulful.
#18 Ben Harper
Mixing blues, reggae, folk, and soul into his own brand of rock brought Ben Harper from underground favorite to multi-Grammy Award winner and soul-stirring singer.
#17 Caleb Followill (Kings of Leon)
Caleb’s voice is a mix of anguish and yearning you can’t turn away from. Followill out in front just sucks you right into Kings of Leon’s soulful southern rock.
#16 Lenny Kravitz
An unmistakable vocal, Lenny Kravitz just melts right into the melody. When he sings he becomes one with the edgy, soulful music. Try listening to “I Belong to You” and not be equally moved and impressed.
#15 Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)
Steely Dan has the description of being a jazz rock band, but Donald Fagen’s uniquely-toned lead vocal was every bit R&B.
#14 Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones)
You hear Keith Sweat’s delivery described as whining. Well, one could easily argue The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger originated the style. He soulfully cried and crooned the Stones right into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
#13 Elvis Presley
Known famously as “The King of Rock n Roll,” Elvis Presley’s soul-singing legacy is steeped in both hits and controversy. Said to have stolen from a number of notable black artists, Presley openly gave credit to his influences—Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter, and B.B. King. Love him or hate him, Elvis could sing his butt off.
#12 Phil Collins
With the group Genesis or solo, Phil Collins brought rhythm and blues to every song he sang, from “I Cant’ Dance” to “In the Air Tonight.” Oh lord, this man is soulful.
#11 Eric Clapton
When it comes to mixing blues and rock, Eric Clapton rules this soulful blend. So amazing and influential doing it, the “Change the World” singer/songwriter is the only 3-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee—once solo, and once apiece with groups Cream and Yardbirds.
#10 Paul Rodgers (Bad Company)
Former member of the group Free, English singer Paul Rodgers launched the supergroup Bad Company along with Simon Kirke. But it was Rodgers’ smooth yet husky, soulful voice that helped songs like “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Can’t Get Enough” take off.
#9 Daryl Hall & John Oates
Hall and Oates are the perfect marriage of soul singing and songwriting. And while Hall fronts their numerous hit, Oates’ smooth background vocals give each song those harmonious layers you just can’t resist.
#8 Corey Glover (Living Colour)
Corey Glover is a groundbreaking, pioneering rock vocalist who made everyone in the genre step up their vocal delivery. He also opened the doors for blacks who may have been afraid to openly perform rock music. As the lead singer of Living Colour, Glover hit the scene like an earthquake in 1988. With Colour, the group Galactic, or solo, when Corey sings he shakes your senses—powerful, passionate, and aggressively soulful.
#7 Stevie Nicks
Rolling Stone Magazine named Stevie Nicks one their “100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” and with good reason; when Nicks sings she touches people, her soulful bravado penetrating cores for nearly 5 decades. She’s amazing singing lead for Fleetwood Mac, and she’s amazing solo.
#6 Bruce Springsteen
The Boss sings with such heart-wrenching conviction he makes packed stadium audiences across the globe burst into tears. Bruce Springsteen is indeed a rock icon, blazing a trail with The E Street Band and by his lonesome. When you strip away Springsteen’s star-studded band mates and his collaborations with the best musicians and producers ever, what’s left is a raw soul singer.
#5 Ann Wilson (Heart)
Here’s where ranking our Top 25 Most Soulful Rock Singers got difficult. With all honesty, a strong case could be made for Heart’s Ann Wilson to be #1. Possessing an incredibly strong soul vocal, Ann brings a nearly unrivaled passion to singing rock music. She’s definitely a hard act to follow. On any concert ticket Heart’s not headlining, the act behind them is left with a lot to live up to.
#4 Steven Tyler (Aerosmith)
Another very legitimate contender for #1, Steven Tyler gives his all to a song, sounding spent near its end. When he’s finished low-growling one moment then breaking glass the next, you’re left sweaty right along with him. Aerosmith is “America’s Greatest Rock n Roll Band,” and Tyler’s soulful falsetto is a big reason why.
#3 Janis Joplin
As we started to discuss the idea of ranking soulful rock singers, Joplin’s name was among the first to be mentioned. Joplin holds a number of well-loved songs to her credit, one of the most popular being the stinging “Piece of My Heart.” Whether solo or with the bands she lead, the late singer attacked all notes with pain, anguish and conviction, an unbridled soulfulness refusing to be ignored.
#2 Steve Perry
When taking on the difficult task discussing all rock artists who were undoubtedly soulful, Steve Perry’s name kept popping up, his mention usually preceded by, “But dang…,” or followed by “whoa.” When asked if the California native was soulful enough to claim the top spot, no one could give a clear reason why not.
The former frontman for rock group Journey is the voice behind a coveted catalog of some of the most endearing, beloved tunes in music history, most of which are found on Journey’s hugely popular greatest hits package. This collection includes the stirringly soulful “Faithfully.” Perry gives every bit of passion on each song he touches, leaving listeners spent with emotion—be it fast cut or slow ballad. Thanks to Perry, Journey’s well-known favorites—which have been passed down from generation to generation via classic radio, traditionalist bar DJs, Napster, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube and Glee—could easily be transformed into R&B versions. And it’s surprising no one has done it yet!
However, to truly witness the full extent of Perry’s soulfulness, look to his solo debut Street Talk, lending your ears to his mega hit “Foolish Heart.” It’s not a question of is he soulful, it’s more when is he not.
#1 Tina Turner
Concluding this list came down to a single question: Who is the most soulful—Tina Turner or Steve Perry? The query was universally met with a long pause and a sigh. The answer, however, was unanimous: Tina Turner.
The leggy legend born Anna Mae Bullock knows her way around rock music. When it comes to adding soulfulness to the genre, “The Queen of Rock” basically rewrote the map! There’s a reason “Proud Mary” has some of, if not the most cross-cultural appeal of any song ever recorded that’s not a Christmas song or nursery rhyme; it rocks hard, and also exudes the traditional essence of the type of soul music that rock was born from. And remake after remake, no one sings “Proud Mary” better than Tina. No one.
Her work with Ike Turner is iconic, yet her solo endeavors led to a degree of pioneering success sure to be studied for eternity. Better still, the intense, unmatchable rock she created in a studio comes second to how much she rocks out live. Thanks to her record-setting global tours, Tina Turner has been heralded the greatest concert draw of all time.
Tina = soulful. See: “Simply The Best,” the theme from the motion picture Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and just about any other song of hers you could mention. For those reasons, Tina Turner is SoulTrain.com’s #1 most soulful rock singer!
Do you agree or disagree with our Top 25 Most Soulful Rock Singers list? Tell us on Twitter @SoulTrain using the hashtag #SoulfulRockSingers.
Thank you to Bowlegged Lou of Full Force, Stokley Williams of Mint Condition, Malina Moye, Leigh Kakaty of Pop Evil, D. “Izzy Mo” Sims of LiquidAE.com, The Web Dream of TheGrooveSpot.com, Nik West, and “Mr. Official Whistle” Cool V for their input.
—Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker is an urban and pop culture enthusiast. Known as “The Word Heavyweight Champion”, the biographer, author, entertainment and celebrity journalist, and columnist is currently a senior writer for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and writer of weekly classic hip-hop reviews for Concrete Magazine’s Concrete615.com. Also co-creator of TheGrooveSpot.com, Walker’s acclaimed, award-winning work has been published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He is also working on a book project with Liquid Arts & Entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit his blog MrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.