- Ray Charles, "I Got A Woman" (December 1954)
The very first hit record to boldly secularize a religious song, it helped Brother Ray finally get a hit after toiling in New Orleans -- and, with his churchy rendition of the Southern Tones' "It Must Be Jesus," quite a bit of notoriety. (Also a cool nickname.)
- Little Willie John, "Need Your Love So Bad" (January 1956)
Willie was a major influence on James Brown, which is very evident from this hit... few R&B singers of the time had mastered that pleading, shouting kind of vocal John employs here.
- James Brown and the Famous Flames, "Please, Please, Please" (March 1956)
The Godfather of Soul got that name from taking Ray and Willie's formula, simplifying it to the point of near-ridiculousness, and roughing it up until it could not be denied. Labels rejected it left and right.
- Chuck Willis, "C.C. Rider" (April 1957)
It's an ancient blues tune, cut right from the pages of Americana folklore just like "Stagger Lee," but Chuck's impassioned delivery helped crown him as the premier "blues shouter" of his generation. This smash also featured a beat so infectious it inspired a dance called The Stroll.
- Jerry Butler and the Impressions, "For Your Precious Love" (March 1958)
Much smoother and sweeter than other proto-soul hits, The Impressions' big early doo-wop classic (and arguably Jerry Butler's finest moment) nonetheless found a way to mine a new depth of emotion with its slow crawl, churchy improvisation, and ample space to breathe.
- The Drifters, "There Goes My Baby" (April 1959)
The birth of what would later be named "Uptown Soul," this Lieber-Stoller production brought Latin flavor to R&B but also smoothed out the edges of soul, proving it could be commercial.
- The Isley Brothers, "Shout" (September 1959)
This, on the other hand, was a serious gospel raveup not even trying to hide its origins, right down to the classic "call-and-response" motif and the expert way the Isleys bring the volume down, and then raging back up. A milestone.
- Jackie Wilson, "Doggin' Around" (April 1960)
Soul singers mostly had super lungs, and Jackie was the definite forerunner of them all, utilizing his three-octave voice, begging, pleading, threatening, and generally earning his moniker of "Mr. Excitement."
- Bobby Marchan, "There's Something On Your Mind (Parts 1 and 2)" (May 1960)
A New Orleans soul classic that, when heard in its entirety, was utterly shocking in the context of what passed for modern American popular music. Most radio material, even hard, gutsy, dramatic, moaning proto-soul like this, didn't come with a body count. Almost gothic in its embrace of death and sorrow.
- Bobby "Blue" Bland, "I Pity The Fool" (January 1961)
Bobby was a bluesman, but he was the most urbane, smooth, and yet sinister bluesman around - a combo that made him perfect for the emerging soul-blues genre. The horns, borrowed from Brother Ray, didn't hurt.
- Ike and Tina Turner, "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" (July 1961)
The rawest R&B available, but with an important groove, fat and swaggering under the weight of Ike's tremeloed guitar> as for Tina, what more needs to be said about her? Girl group singers were polite, but the Burner demanded to be married here. She wasn't waiting to be asked.
- William Bell, "You Don't Miss Your Water" (October 1961)
What Bell thought was a demo he was recording turned out to be not just a big R&b hit but a transformative one, covered by every soul singer for decades since and also, for some reason, by the Byrds.
- Barbara George, "I Know (You Don't Love Me No More)" (October 1961)
Allen Toussaint once again proved his knack for creating uptempo pop songs that didn't lose any of their grit in the process, resulting in a song so soulful yet smooth Sam Cooke name-checked it in his own smash "Having a Party."
- The Falcons, "I Found A Love" (January 1962)
It's unusual for a doo-wop group to make it on a list like this, especially since their first smash, "You're So Fine," didn't sound like soul at all. But that was before they picked up a singer named Wilson Pickett, who proceeded to establish his wicked vocal credentials here.
- The Valentinos, "Lookin' For a Love" (March 1962)
Bobby Womack's first hit came with this doo-wop group, and his gritty delivery was a definite precursor of the decade to come; before long, everyone from the Stones to the J. Geils Band would be imitating Bobby's impassioned, gospel-styled pleadings.
- Benny Spellman, "Lipstick Traces" (April 1962)
Sort of a reverse-engineered version of "Mother-In-Law," the Ernie K-Doe hit which put New Orleans Soul on the map, this single found greater acceptance among UK mods than it did in the US. Benny Spellman's basso profundo is the main man to K-Doe's vocal sidekick here, and not the other way 'round.
- Sam Cooke, "Bring It On Home To Me" (May 1962)
Another very obvious variation on the "call-and-response" theme, with two impassioned leads: Sam and Lou Rawls. Sam and Dave would later take this dynamic to its logical extreme.
- Solomon Burke, "Cry To Me" (August 1962)
Solomon Burke was the sweetest of the shouters, and when given this kind of pop production, its something of a puzzle as to why he didn't become a major star in the early '60s. Over time, however, classics like this finally found their audience.
- Booker T. and the MGs, "Green Onions" (September 1962)
The MGs had already established the New Orleans-influenced lazy backbeat later to be found in all Stax records when they scored a hit, as The Mar-Keys, with the instrumental "Last Night." This one ups the ante on the blues, however, with both lead instruments. What other title could have conveyed that delicious "down home" Southern feel?
- Otis Redding, "These Arms of Mine" (May 1963)
Otis' debut -- the performance which got him his deal with Stax -- could very well be thought of as the first appearance of "real" genuine soul music. Only trouble was, it wasn't a huge hit, not even on the R&B charts; it'd take a year or two for audiences to get hip to this kind of gospel-blues thing.
- Garnett Mimms, "Cry Baby" (July 1963)
Like Otis, Garnett Mimms took the pained expressions of soul and raised the bar to a ridiculously high level, so much so that both Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant frequently covered his emotionally epic ballads.
- Freddie Scott, "Hey Girl" (July 1963)
On the other side of the coin, Freddie Scott was exploring the lush side of soul's new possibilities with this Goffin-King number, which could very well be considered the beginning of "blue-eyed soul." Even if Scott was an African-American.
- Rufus Thomas, "Walking the Dog" (August 1963)
Thomas had been a bluesman at Sun, and certainly thought of himself as such when he began recording for Stax, but withe the MGs behind him, he unknowingly laid down the blueprint for the label's whole sound.
- The Impressions, "It's All Right" (September 1963)
Curtis Mayfield was present during soul's conception (with "For Your Precious Love"), and he kept popularizing and defining and expanding the style all the way through the mid-70s. This, however, was a pivotal moment for Curtis and the genre -- the sound of Southern black gospel entering the mainstream as a soundtrack for the historic civil rights struggle. Which was also being taken up by the masses.
- Irma Thomas, "Ruler Of My Heart" (September 1963)
New Orleans' own Queen of Soul had her understated yet emotionally raw way with this Allen Toussaint composition, and the result was not lost on Otis, who changed the gender dynamics and had a minor hit with "Pain In My Heart."
- Marvin Gaye, "Can I Get a Witness" (September 1963)
Marvin Gaye and Motown put a sexy spin on the call-and-response motif, turning Marvin into genuine if clean-cut sex symbol and establishing gospelized dance pop as the natural next step from the girl-group R&B the label had been cutting.
- Major Lance, "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" (November 1963)
Major Lance closes off soul music's last developmental year with another pop smash, modeled closely after Mayfield but also heavy on the moan. The next year, Redding would release "Mr. Pitiful," and Martha and the Vandellas would score with "Dancing In The Street." Soul music had arrived.