There are so many reasons to love Beyoncé . She’s gorgeous, talented, and referred to as Queen Bey for a reason. Not only can she sing, dance, and act, but she has done an amazing job of carrying the torch for strong women everywhere.
Bey first made a name for herself as a singer in the girl group Destiny’s Child in 1990. Long before that, though, there were quite a few soul divas who paved the way for powerful female voices in music. No doubt these artists have influenced not only Beyoncé but the entire R&B genre for female and male artists alike. Many of them have passed on, but all of them deserve to be remembered as their music lives on today.
Let’s go back in time and add some old school to our soul diva playlist!
1. Etta James (1938 – 2012)
Etta James is ranked number 22 on Billboard’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. She started her career as a singer in the 1950s and became well-versed in many different genres, including soul, jazz, and rock and roll. James led a rough life, experiencing drug addiction and incarceration through the years.
Before her death in 2012, she had some choice words about Beyoncé. According to MTV.com, she was not a fan of Bey’s cover of “At Last,” which she performed at President Obama‘s inauguration. She later claimed she had been joking. Despite the drama, Beyoncé actually played Etta in the movie Cadillac Records and has covered her iconic songs “At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Check out the originals and Beyoncé’s covers — both are worth a listen!
2. Aretha Franklin (1942 – present)
Aretha is another artist whose iconic voice and catchy songs are required listening for any fan of Queen B. She’s the most charted female artist on Billboard and has won a whopping 18 Grammys in her lifetime. With songs like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” it’s easy to see why.
Franklin has claimed that she can hear her influence in Beyoncé’s music. She also told talk show host Meredith Vieira that she admires Beyoncé for being a hard worker who puts a lot of energy into what she does. I think we can all agree with her on that!
3. Anita Baker (1958 – present)
Anita Baker started her career singing in Detroit night clubs. Like Bey, she was at first part of a group and then kicked off her solo career. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Beyoncé mentioned Anita Baker as one of her earliest influences, saying that she used to perform Baker’s songs in her mother’s hair salon as a child. She has also done a great cover of the powerful ballad “Sweet Love,” originally sung by Anita. While the iconic singer-songwriter retired from music in January of 2017, her legacy continues in the music industry.
4. Donna Summer (1948 – 2012)
This diva was a sensation when she hit the scene in the 1970s. She was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the United States Billboard 200 chart and hit the radio with four number one singles within just a year. Donna Summer also had a huge influence on Beyoncé. When Donna passed away in 2012, the mother-of-three wrote a heartfelt note saying that she considered Summer to be “so much more than the queen of disco… she was an honest and gifted singer with flawless vocal talent.” Beyoncé sampled Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” in her song “Naughty Girl.”
We love the fresh take on Summer’s classic hit and recommend that you add it to your playlist, as well!
5. Diana Ross (1944 – present)
Diana Ross has been called the original Beyoncé, and not going to lie, it’s a pretty apt comparison. She got her start as the lead singer of The Supremes, one of the world’s best-selling female groups of all time, topping charts with songs like “Baby Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.” But Ross left her band in the ’70s and launched a successful solo career.
Just like Beyoncé, she also starred in several successful films. In 1993, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Ross the most successful female music artist in history. It’s no wonder Beyoncé played Deena (the character based on Diana Ross) in the movie Dreamgirls (add that one to your Netflix queue if you haven’t seen it!).
6. Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)
Let’s go back in time a bit to the incredible vocals of Billie Holiday. Getting her start at night clubs in Harlem, Holiday lived a short and tumultuous life. Much of her music was released again after her death at age 44, and she’s won four posthumous Grammys. A movie about her life, starring none other than Diana Ross, came out in 1972. Holiday’s unique voice and ability to improvise on stage make her one of the most iconic female singers in U.S. history.
7. Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996)
Way before Queen Bey, there was the Queen of Jazz. Like Billie Holiday, Lady Ella got her start performing for audiences in Harlem. She joined a band but broke off to start her solo career in the early 1940s. Just like Beyoncé, she’s a triple threat who’s known for her incredible singing abilities, dancing skills, and many movie roles. She won 14 Grammys and was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom before her death in 1996.
8. Eartha Kitt (1927 – 2008)
Eartha Kitt wore many hats as an entertainer, dabbling in everything from activism to comedy. She’s mainly known for her incredible singing chops, topping the charts with hits like “Santa Baby” and “Under the Bridges of Paris.” She was a prolific actress right up until her death in 2008, voicing characters in Disney movies and winning Tony Awards on Broadway. Her music is a must-listen for fans of jazz and cabaret.
9. Ann Peebles (1947 – present)
Ann Peebles is a lesser-known star who got her start in her church’s gospel choir as a child — just like Katy Perry and Jessica Simpson. (Yes, really.) She grew up with ten siblings and stood out early in life as a talented singer, opening for stars like Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson. Her hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain” showcases her beautiful vocals, and her songs have been sampled by artists like Missy Elliott and Wu-Tang Clan. Sadly Peebles’ career came to a halt in the mid-2000s when she had a stroke. Her music, however, remains as timeless as ever.
10. Nina Simone (1933 – 2003)
Beyoncé pays homage to Nina Simone in the music video for “Sandcastles” by including one of her famous LPs, as well as part of her song “The Look of Love.” We love this tribute to Simone because she’s another extraordinarily talented female vocalist who paved the way for many soul singers. Simone created music for decades, recording more than 40 albums during her lifetime. She attended Juilliard and was active during the civil rights movement, making her an artist whose deeds and music remain an inspiration.
11. Tina Turner (1939 – present)
No list would be complete without Tina Turner. The 11-time Grammy winning Queen of Rock N’ Roll has quite an interesting story. She was born Anna Mae Bullock and grew up on a farm in Tennessee. At the age of 16, she met Ike Turner at a night club. She was mesmerized by his voice, and the two formed the famous duo Ike & Tina Turner. They got married and toured for years, topping the charts wherever they went.
Unfortunately, they divorced a decade and a half later after some tumultuous times including an accusation of abuse and didn’t speak for years. That’s when Tina made a name for herself going solo. She took a hiatus in 2000 and made a comeback in 2008, performing alongside Beyoncé at the Grammys. In 2013, Turner renounced her US citizenship and became a citizen of Switzerland. She now lives there permanently and practices the Buddhist faith.
In “Drunk in Love” by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Jay sings a line “I am Ike Turner… Baby know I don’t play. Now eat the cake, Anna Mae. Said Eat the Cake, Anna Mae.” This lyric got the contemporary couple criticized heavily as they were referring to a scene in the Ike and Turner documentary where Ike gets violent with his spouse.
12. Roberta Flack (1937 – present)
Getting her start playing classical piano at the age of nine, Roberta received a full scholarship to a prestigious music school where she was one of the youngest students to ever be admitted. She is the only solo artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year twice in a row. Flack is still active in the music world, currently working on an album of Beatles covers. Bey and Luther Vandross covered her hit song “The Closer I Get to You” in 2003.
13. Dionne Warwick (1940 – present)
Dionne Warwick has an interesting connection to several R&B icons. She’s cousins with Whitney Houston, for one, but she’s also the mother to famous music producer Damon Elliott. You may know him as the producer for Destiny’s Child. He’s since gone on to produce for many of our favorite artists, unsurprisingly including Beyoncé. Warwick herself is nothing short of a legend. She is the second most charted female vocalist of all time after Aretha Franklin and has a long list of awards and accomplishments under her belt.
14. Gladys Knight (1944 – present)
Known as the Empress of Soul, Gladys may be as much of a fan of Beyoncé as we are! She’s stuck up for her on Twitter, telling critics that Beyoncé is “hard-working, self-made, and beautiful.” She also gave her high praise at the annual Black Girls Rock! awards ceremony. Knight got her start in music in the 1960s with the hit-making group Gladys Knight and the Pips. They performed together until the late 1970s when Knight broke off to start her solo career.
She did extraordinarily well on her own, winning seven Grammys and countless awards. In 2006, she was presented with a Living Legend Award, and in 2011 the Soul Train Music Awards awarded her their Lifetime Achievement Award. What an incredible legacy!
15. Sharon Jones (1956 – 2016)
Though she technically got her start around the same time as the “Hold Up” singer, we still want to honor the late Sharon Jones. Jones entered the R&B scene late in life as the lead vocalist for a group called Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. She’s cited Beyoncé as an influence, and her music is definitely worth adding to your soul diva playlist.
She performed the powerful song “100 Days 100 Nights” on the Netflix show Luke Cage in 2016. Sadly she suffered a stroke later that year while watching the presidential election results, jokingly blaming it on Donald Trump’s victory. She passed away a few days later.
16. Natalie Cole (1950 – 2015)
The daughter of Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole made a name for herself at an early age. She was called the new Aretha Franklin, and her cover of Franklin’s “Daydreaming” became a major R&B hit. Destiny’s Child sampled Cole’s song “Inseparable” on their hit single “If” in 2004.
Years later, Natalie Cole called Beyoncé the next Madonna, which is an interesting comparison if you consider how much of an influence both women have had on pop culture. We don’t know if the contemporary singer agrees, but we do know that she is an admirer of the late Natalie Cole.