I believe that the best soul singers of the 80s are the following: Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, Rick James, Marvin Gaye, Al Jarreau, James Ingram, Frankie Beverly, George Benson, Smokey Robinson, El DeBarge, Billy Ocean and Freddie Jackson.
But what made these singers so great? Well, let’s dive into each talented artist to find out what made them so special!
Soul Singers of the 80s We Love
Let’s begin with Prince.
Prince was a major driving force in the overhaul of Soul music. His often outlandish and androgynous demeanor added a new level of sex appeal to the genre that would prove both controversial and irresistible. During the 80s Prince impacted culture as a vocalist, skilled musician, model, movie star, and activist. He is often regarded as one of the greatest musicians and sex symbols of all time.
The 80s saw him rise to prominence and two of his albums from the decade make Rolling Stone’s top 50 list of the best albums of all time. This electric being even recorded the Batman soundtrack! Truly one of a kind!
My favorite Prince song: “When Doves Cry” Purple Rain, 1984. One of the most popular tracks from the Purple Rain movie soundtrack, a movie starring Prince in the lead role.
2) Michael Jackson
There is no denying the soul roots of the King of Pop. Young Michael captured the hearts of America as a member of the Jackson 5. By the 80s he was already a seasoned artist about to spread his wings fully. After releasing his groundbreaking, Off the Wall in 1979, Michael dropped two of the most important albums of all time, Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987).
These two albums would go on to redefine how artists create music, dance, shoot videos, and how artists perform live. They are the number one and number eleven best-selling albums of all time. The international stardom of Michael Jackson is something that might not ever be witnessed again.
My favorite Michael Jackson Song: “Billie Jean” – Thriller, 1982. This song is so iconic it inspired MJ to Moonwalk.
3) Stevie Wonder
Well into his musical career by this decade, the musical genius of Stevie Wonder continued to flourish through the 80s. This new decade was the beginning of Wonder’s commercial success. His 1980 album, Hotter Than July, was his first platinum-selling work and introduced a more modern-sounding Stevie Wonder including the addition of some of the first digital samples used in music.
In this collaborative decade for Wonder, worked with many of the best artists in music from Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and Michael Jackson. He also tackled many issues facing his listeners from racial inequality and the AIDS epidemic to anti apartheid messages. The 1980s were a decade where Wonder really spread his reach and influence.
My favorite Stevie Wonder song: “Do I Do” – Original Musiquarium, 1982. While this album was mainly a retrospective of his hits from the previous decade, it featured new songs like “Do I Do” that showed the growth and range of Wonder. This is an upbeat funk song that will have you dancing.
4) Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie has played a major role in popularizing Soul and R&B music. The former Commodore went solo in 1982 and began to carve out a career that would make him one of the most beloved artists of all time. He is a skilled songwriter, best known for his amazing love ballads. He also put out popular dance tracks of the time like “Dancing On The Ceiling”.
Richie alongside Michael Jackson even co-wrote the charity single, “We Are the World” which featured a number of artists on this list. He is still impacting the future of music with Vegas residencies and as a judge on the hit show, American Idol.
My favorite Lionel Richie song: “All Night Long” – Can’t Slow Down, 1983. One of the greatest dance-pop songs of all time. This rhythmic groove features Afro-Caribbean influences and was a crossover hit on the Billboard charts.
5) Luther Vandross
Before his solo breakthrough of the 80s, Luther Vandross made a name singing backup vocals for many of the best hit makers of the time. His debut album and single Never Too Much introduced the world to the voice they surely had heard before in the background of their favorite songs. Vandross’ keeps the more wholesome themes of 70s soul music and lends his sweet and soulful voice to a number of beautiful love ballads.
My favorite Luther Vandross song: “Here and Now” – The Best of Luther Vandross The Best of Love, 1989. His last single of the decade, “Here and Now” is a soulful love ballad for the ages.
6) Rick James
Before being reintroduced to the world through the lens of Chappelle’s Show, Rick James was a larger-than-life personality in the 80s music scene. His 1981 album, Street Songs, features numerous groovy hits such as “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak”. James’ career began in rock music and evolved into his own style of funky soul music that incorporated themes of disco and new wave which were growing in popularity at the time.
His crazy antics, wild attire, and musical content made him a controversial act akin to Prince. The two even had a bitter rivalry due to these similarities. Rick James was a legendary figure whose influence can be seen and heard in artists like Lil Nas X today.
My Favorite Rick James Song: “Super Freak” – Street Dreams, 1981. This funky jam has been repeatedly sampled through the decades and has been used in countless commercials. You know what they say, Sex Sells.
7) Marvin Gaye
The “Prince of Soul”, Marvin Gaye, had one of the most successful musical runs during the 1970s. He became a household name after releasing hit after hit on nine separate albums. The 80s was a much slower decade for the artist only dropping four albums during the period. That being said, his signature sultry voice, recorded one of his most successful songs ever in the R&B ballad, Sexual Healing. This sexy song would go on to win a Grammy for best R&B Vocal Performance in 1982 further cementing Marvin Gaye’s legacy as one of the best soul singers of all time.
My favorite Marvin Gaye song: “Sexual Healing” – Midnight Love, 1982.
This song reflects the personal issues that Gaye was escaping from while living in Belgium. It was inspired by a friend’s comment stating that Gaye needed “Sexual Healing”. A hit was born!
8) Al Jarreau
A musical savant in his own right. The multi-category Grammy award winner provided refreshingly smooth vocals over a number of different music genres. Originally an acclaimed jazz artist, his adaptability allowed him to crossover into pop and R&B music effortlessly. He was clearly well-received winning Grammy’s in both categories.
My favorite Al Jarreue song: “(Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo a La Turk” – Breakin’ Away, 1981. This might be the best example of Jarreau’s raw talent. Singing and scatting he challenges this jazz staple with his one-of-a-kind cover.
9) James Ingram
The hidden voice of Quincy Jones. James Ingram was a talented star of the 80s whose partnership with the legendary producer helped him rise to prominence. As the lead vocalist on two songs from Jone’s album, The Dude, he became not only an accomplished and well-known vocalist but also a Grammy winner He had a smooth tenor voice that brought to life soulful ballads.
My favorite James Ingram song: “Ya Mo B There” – It’s Your Night, 1983. A duet with Michael McDonald, a man whose vocal ability rivaled most on this list, Ya Mo B There is another soulful classic from Ingram. Ingram was nominated for Best Male R&B Performance at the 1985 Grammys for this track.
10) Frankie Beverly
As the lead singer, producer, and songwriter for MAZE, Frankie Beverly, gracefully led the Philadelphia soul-funk band through the 80s to produce a number of timeless hits. The band fuses together jazz, funk, and hints of gospel music to create mainly upbeat and happy soul tunes. While the band has changed over the years, Beverly still leads them through live performances to this day!
My favorite Frankie Beverly song: “Before I Let Go” – Live In New Orleans,1981. A cookout classic! Play this upbeat song to get people on their feet and grooving!
11) George Benson
Traditionally an exceptional Jazz Guitarist, George Benson broke out of his shell in the 1980s (with the help of Quincy Jones). He dove deeper into his own vocal style and the result was a successful breakthrough into popular music. Benson would release double-digit vocal albums over the 80s decade. The talented artist joins others on this list to win Grammy awards as both a vocalist and an instrumentalist.
My favorite George Benson song: is “Give Me The Night” off of the 1981 album of the same is Benson’s funk-pop soul 80s debut. This song introduced the world to the new George Benson that would lean into his vocal prowess and further push the boundaries of Jazz.
12) Smokey Robinson
Two decades removed from his group The Miracles, Smokey Robinson stepped into solo form during the 80s. He cruised into the new decade with his last hit of 1979 (“Cruisin’”) and rode that momentum to continue his prolific career.
My favorite Smokey Robinson song: “Just To See Her” – One Heartbeat, 1987. Despite his long and illustrious career, Smokey finally won his first Grammy for this delightful love song.
13) El DeBarge
The breakout sibling from the popular group DeBarge, El’s signature falsetto made him an easily recognizable voice in this decade. The group looked to mirror the Jackson 5s appeal of the previous decade and saw success well into the 80s. By 1986 El’s star power and voice could no longer be denied and he saw immediate (though short-lived) success as a solo artist.
My favorite El DeBarge song: “I LIke It” – All This Love, 1982. This song shows how El’s vocal prowess stood out from that of his siblings. An early sign of his ability as a future solo star.
14) Billy Ocean
This Trinidad-Tobago-born artist Is the most popular British R&B singer of the decade. He became an international star in the mid-1980s with a number of hits that crossed over to U.S. charts. His 1985 hit single “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)” was his first crossover hit and won him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance that same year.
My favorite Billy Ocean song is: “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” – Tear Down These Walls, 1988. This song’s music video was one of the first to feature animation mixed with live-action sequences. Rare even for movies and TV at the time.
15) Freddie Jackson
Freddie Jackson was one of the strongest rising talents of the late 80s soul scene, topping the R&B charts with numerous tracks. His more adult-themed romantic soul ballads were popular with urban audiences but failed to crossover to pop listeners.
My Favorite Freddie Jackson: “You Are My Lady” – Rock Me Tonight, 1985. Freddie’s most notable song. Showcases his smooth singing voice that captivated contemporary listeners.
The influences of the decade can be heard clearly throughout these artists’ music. Times were changing rapidly and the amazing music put out by these men reflected those changes. This era of Soul music cannot be mentioned without crediting Quincy Jones who produced for or worked with the majority of the artist on this list in some fashion during this decade.
This list of soul singers of the 80s contains many artists regarded as the greatest singers and musicians of all time. Take some time to explore these artists who revolutionized music forever.
This article was written by Justinian and edited by Michael.