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Perfect 10: Funk-Soul Sisters

In the rich tapestry of the music industry, black female singers have consistently woven threads of soul, rhythm, and passion into the very fabric of our musical heritage, from the gospel roots of the Deep South to the soaring heights of rock and roll stardom.

Soul music and its sub-genres originated in the African-American communities in the mid-20th century, helping to shape the soundtracks of our lives and challenging societal norms, transcending boundaries of genre, race, and prejudice. 

With its profound impact on music, culture, and the world at large, soul has since become a key source of inspiration for artists and has birthed a number of offshoot styles. One of those is, of course, funk, when their loose-limbed brothers and sisters created a more rhythmic, danceable solution in the 1960s.

The history of funk and soul is teeming with talent, but who are the ten greatest and most famous females of the genres? As a white(ish) man, I wouldn’t even dare to narrow it down and impose some kind of arbitrary rating system. Yes, some performers naturally stand out above the rest, and you can query whether Amii Stewart and Janet Jackson (1985 and 1986, for what it’s worth) should be here — they’re not but only because in terms of my dusty old vinyl collection their greatness was restricted to a single or two.

So don’t go getting enraged about Etta or dejected over Joan because in narrow terms, what I’m listicling today during International Women’s Day 2024 is a Perfect 10 defined by a very simple and personal purchasing criteria: the first clutch of black American females predominately known for their name above the titles who had at least a couple of albums find their way into my record collection, in reverse chronological order. It really is that simple that even Stevie Wonder could see that, and he doesn‘t have the range.


A forever morphing powerhouse singer, songwriter, producer, and dancer, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles is a multifaceted entity by any measure. 

The Houstonian rose to fame in the nineties as the key member of Destiny’s Child. Then came the inventible split and start of a solo streak of chart-topping albums with Dangerously In Love, the source of the genuinely ecstatic Crazy In Love. Further hits like the boisterous Single Ladies (Put A Ring on It) combined with wind-machined world tours all heightened Bey’s profile.

Through a mix of R&B, soul, and elements of rock and country, Beyoncé has taken us on an emotional journey rich with bold storytelling and unapologetic expression. She’s always been an astute student of motion and pictures, but 2016’s Lemonade saw Bey at her most sonically resplendent, while redefining the concept of a visual album. 

With a little (OK, a lot) borrowing from Janelle Monáe’s convoluted concept albums, it’s more recent works like these that sees the songstress do a more deep dive into themes of betrayal, empowerment, and resilience while paying homage to race, sexuality, and technology, conspiring to solidify Beyoncé as one of the greats of 21st century shapeshifters.

First purchase: Dangerously In Love (2003)

Dionne Warwick 

Born in Orange, New Jersey, the singularity of Dionne Marie Warwick is defined by what the singer isn’t as much as what she is. Although Warwick grew up singing in church inspired by Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, she’s not a gospel or jazz singer. If one had to label her, a light pop singer infused with smooth sophisticated soul and R&B would probably describe most of the music she has recorded. 

Niece to Cissy Houston (and therefore, cousin to Whitney), Dionne Warwick emerged out of the Brill Building environment of post-Elvis Presley, pre-Beatles pop in the early 1960s. That’s when she hooked up with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, songwriters and producers who tailored their unusually complicated songs for her hugely impressive instrument. 

Aside from the numerous hits she’s had a hand in — Walk On By, Don’t Make Me Over, This Girl’s In Love With You, Do You Know The Way To San Jose, and, later, a return to chart glory with the Bee Gees helmed Heartbreaker — what’s remarkable is that in her prime, Warwick was able to combine two areas of brilliance: an aching yet detached vocal style by way of her coruscating contralto, and those effortlessly sounding natural interpretive skills. 

Among the greatest popular singers there are very few who have both talents in abundance, and in my view, Dionne Warwick is almost as under-rated a vocalist as her ole buddy Gladys Knight. And more on her later.

First purchase: The Essential Collection (1998)

Nina Simone 

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone was one of the most gifted girls of her generation, and also one of the most eclectic. She was a Conservatoire-trained musician, singer, and songwriter who bent genres to her will rather than allowing herself to be confined by their boundaries.

Consequently, Simone’s work swung back and forth between jazz, blues, soul, funk, gospel, pop and world music, with passion, emotional honesty, and a strong grasp of technique. 

Simone’s reputation as a powerful live performer was unassailable by the late 1950s, and her renditions of I Loves You Porgy, Mississippi Goddam, Baltimore, I Put A Spell On You, Four Women, and Young, Gifted and Black, are the ones to which each interpreter aspires to. Even a white male artist like David Bowie used her recording of Wild Is The Wind as his benchmark. 

Surprise and sporadic returns to the British charts with Ain’t Got No/I Got Life and My Baby Just Cares For Me cemented her status as the so-called High Priestess of Soul. She died at home in the French Riviera commune of Carry-le-Rouet in 2003.

First purchase: Wild Is The Wind / High Priestess Of Soul (1991)

Chaka Khan

An icon of feminism, funk and R&B, big-lunged Chicago diva Yvette Marie Stevens secured her high standing as the featured frontperson with seventies multiracial combo Rufus and Chaka Khan.

Skillfully gliding across soul, funk, rock, and jazz, they reached hit big with Tell Me Something Good (1974) and the dynamic Ain’t Nobody (1983). 

As the band remained active (at least initially), CK launched her solo career with I’m Every Woman, an anthemic disco delight that was the launching pad for a ton of hits. Among those formidable 45s are Papillon, What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me and This Is My Night, complete with legendary thunderthighs turn on Top Of The Pops.

Having shown a knack for imaginative interpretations, Chaka took it to another level with a searing electro-funk reimagining of Prince’s I Feel For You. Featuring cameos from Melle Mel and Stevie Wonder, such was its success that in the mid-1980s it seemed like every white limey worth their weight in Goldfingers were queuing up to have Chaka emote on their records, mentioning no names Robert Palmer, Steve Winwood and David Bowie. Ah, the dear old Dame. He gets everywhere.

First purchase: Life Is A Dance – The Remix Project (1989)

Gladys Knight 

When Motown was in its coiffured pomp, Gladys Knight never seemed to receive the respect she deserved. If the fans adored her, Berry Gordy’s attention always seemed to be fixed on Diana Ross, a fancier commercial prospect, but a less powerful singer. After hits such as Just Walk In My Shoes and Neither One Of Us, Gladys Knight & The Pips drifted off to another label and even greater acclaim, reaching their commercial apogee with peerless soul pop classics like Midnight Train To Georgia, Baby Don‘t Change Your Mind and the cleverly conjoined Try To Remember/The Way We Were.

There’s certainly no question about Gladys’s place in the hierarchy today. Now that Aretha Franklin is no longer with us, the Georgia-born Empress of Soul reigns supreme. While Knight may have parted company with the Pips, she can still deliver the vital soul anthems. Indeed, her emotionally raw and potent vocals make Whitney Houston’s generation seem downright histrionic. 

Midway through a fairly lean decade, Knight teamed up with Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and Elton John for one of the earliest celebrity AIDS fundraisers, the Grammy winning chart-topper That’s What Friends Are For, America’s biggest selling single of 1986. And yes, in a room full of stunning vocalists, it’s Gladys that absolutely steals the show. 

As the nineties beckoned, Knight found herself in an unlikely role, as the latest Bond girl, singing the thunderous theme to Licence To Kill. Marking the moment when the technically greatest vocalist to sing a Bond theme for the most unloved film in the franchise, the song showed off the unique timbre of her voice — that incredible lower register — and became a Top 10 single in ten countries… but, alas, is still Gladys’s Knight’s only solo hit in much of the world. Yet, as was evidenced by recent performances from Culture Club concerts to Super Bowl and The Masked Singer, this lady still got it… in spades.

First purchase: The Singles Album (1989)

Donna Summer

From the European pop smash This Time I Know It’s For Real through rockier raunch like Bad Girls and Hot Stuff, the scope of the abilities of the woman born Donna Adrian Gaines in Boston (the same month as my mother, no less) have always shown that she was never just the, to coin an overused phrase, the “Queen of Disco”. 

Indeed, such an epithet is to pigeonhole and constrain, because Donna Summer was an astoundingly multifaceted talent who wrote, sang, interpreted, and collaborated fearlessly across innumerable musical genres that included rock, pop, gospel, soul, R&B and even show tunes. She did it all this in a time when mostly white male pundits/gatekeepers showed hostility to any black women who dared to pioneer spaces where they supposedly weren’t welcome. 

Tagged with another moniker, the ‘First Lady of Love’, Summer defined a specific epoch in popular culture and beyond, as a succession of amorous hits from Love To Love You Baby, I Love You and Love’s Unkind mutated into her most groundbreaking record with production genius Giorgio Moroder, 1977’s still impossibly influential I Feel Love.

Even just a cursory mention of her many other famous 45s — from Last Dance and On The Radio to State Of Independence and She Works Hard For The Money — can’t ever do justice to the breadth of Donna Summer’s talent. 

First purchase: On The Radio – Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1989)

Diana Ross

The very definition of showbiz glitz and glamour, Diana Ernestine Earl Ross grew up in Detroit (neighbours with Aretha, natch) and has captivated the entertainment industry for sixty years, kicking off as one third of The Supremes, the Motown pop-soul trio that every subsequent girl group in the world has been measured against. 

Baby Love, You Can’t Hurry Love, You Keep Me Hangin’ On, and Someday We’ll Be Together were just a smidgeon of the transatlantic No.1 hits the girls enjoyed. Moreover, The Supremes would go on to become the most successful American act of the 1960s, eclipsed only by The Beatles.

A waif-like beauty with a honeyed, breathy voice and big telly-ready eyes, Ross coos lyrics of love, loss, and as well as scores of solo smashes to her name — Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Surrender, I’m Still Waiting, Love Hangover, Upside Down, Chain Reaction et al — this effervescent eternal star duetted with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Lionel Ritchie and wound up influencing not just African-American singers with her grace, elegance, style and flair, but also rock acts of the new-wave eras and was even the unwitting inspiration behind Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery remodelling. Ow! Ross is boss.

First purchase: Eaten Alive (1986)

Grace Jones

And now ladies and gentlemen, here’s Grace! 

Born in Jamaica, though a US resident from the age of 13, Grace Beverly Jones is that controversial trailblazer that’s always been larger than life and twice as funky. 

The most significant artist to emerge from New York City’s hedonistic habituée, Studio 54, Grace evolved into a recording artist with Island Records, first as a disco dolly that operated around the camper end of the spectrum (I Need A Man! Do Or Die!), then, fronting a new wave hybrid that incorporated everything from reggae to funk and her unique brand of android soul, an innovative triptych of art-pop albums now viewed as seminal works — Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981) and Living My Life (1982)

Armed with that brash confidence and subversive bravado, La Vie En Rose, Pull Up To The Bumper and Slave To The Rhythm are arguably trio of cast-iron classics. She’s a singer, songwriter, author, actress, model, style icon, Bond Girl, Harty hitter, you name it, she’s done it. 

This was a woman who made things happen by the sheer magnitude of her presence. And if I can paraphrase Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, who wrote Grace’s minor hit Love Is The Drug, she’s the fiercest queen I’ve even seen.

First purchase: Island Life (1985)

Aretha Franklin

The last Detroiter on the list, and the First Lady of Soul, Aretha Louise Franklin was a giant of the music industry and still the female soloist with the most Hot 100 entries in US history, having signed her first record deal aged 18. 

Lady Soul had the power, range and technique, allied with pitch-perfect instincts. Whether she’s ripping it up like a civil rights warrior or laying out emotional truths in Respect, was there ever a bad Aretha vocal? Well, OK, there was that Sinatra duet, I guess.

With more than her fair share of Atlantic soul classics (Chain of Fools, Think, I Say A Little Prayer), this preacher’s daughter epitomised soul at its most gospel-charged. 1967’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is undoubtedly her signature song, but if I think back to the other side of the pond in the 1980s, the vast majority of my generation had little idea who Aretha was before Scritti Politti’s Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin) and Sisters Are Doin’ it Tor Themselves, her kitschy collaboration with Eurythmics and one of the great feminist anthems of our times.

Despite no end of shady moments, part of Aretha’s appeal was that she didn’t scorn pop culture, and was open to new sounds and even being kissed by David Bowie. She could sing opera, but she never lost her love of a good duet with limeys like George Michael and Elton John. Gotta get up to get down and all that.

First purchase: Who’s Zoomin’ Who (1985)

Tina Turner 

Born Anna Mae Bullock in Brownsville, Tennessee, this legendary lady was possessed of one of the most distinctive and easily identifiable voices in the history of music, whatever its creed. Tina Turner’s earthy, gutsy, take-no-prisoner vocals colourfully bridged many gaps by incorporating everything from soul, blues and R&B to jazz, funk, and eventually earning the epithet the Queen Of Rock ’N Roll.

Blessed with a timeless spirit and an effervescent energy, this is the Acid Queen who overcame insuperable odds, bursting from the confines of her abusive partnership with first husband Ike Turner — not to mention the duo’s now immortal classics River Deep Mountain High, Proud Mary and Nutbush City Limits — to become a solo superstar and, unquestionably, the subject of the greatest comeback in music history with Private Dancer and its mega-hits like Let’s Stay Together and What’s Love Got To Do With It.

With later hits including We Don’t Need Another Hero, Typical Male, The Best and GoldenEye, Tina continued to smash records and help remove the glass ceiling of what women in music could achieve. Her record-breaking relaunch happened concurrently with the rise of something called Madonna, but it was La Turner who was the first woman to sell out football stadiums; and her Break Every Rule tour of 1987-1988 is still the biggest series of concerts, by attendance, for a female artist which includes entering the Guinness Book of World Records for the soloist with the largest ever paying audience with 182,000+ people in Rio ’88. 

On a personal note, not only was Tina Turner in ‘87 the first female concert I ever did see, but she remains the only femme to have recorded with ostensibly my two favourite male acts, David Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys, and sing a Bond theme. For context, Lulu, who penned Tina’s 1993’s hit I Don’t Wanna Fight) only ever managed two of the three, as did that Madge woman. Whatever happened to her?

First purchase: Private Dancer (1984)

Steve Pafford

Perfect 10: Funk-Soul Brothers is here 

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