Diva has shifted in meaning from a term to describe a female opera singer to a term that means both “woman who is really good at singing” and “woman who is something of a handful personally.” So it’s probably worth pointing out that the British soul divas in this list are definitely the former. They may possibly be the latter too, but that’s not why they made the list. As far as we’re concerned, you can have one without the other.
So let’s start with a singer who should have been celebrating her 76th birthday today (April 16):
In many ways, Dusty’s story set the template for all British soul singers to follow, in the public eye at least. Blessed with immaculate pipes, but hampered by a self-consciousness so acute she could barely bear to hear herself sing while recording, she spent a good deal of her career feeling that she had to battle her way past imperious band leaders and producers to get results. The term perfectionist was bandied about, sometimes with an unimpressed eyeroll. Mind you, the music she was most vocally influenced by—soul and R’n’B, principally—was all new, especially to seasoned British musicians, but when she went to Memphis to record with a more sympathetic band the self-consciousness was so great she had her voice drowned out in her headphone mix. Her particular genius is that you can’t hear any of this hassle and fuss in her sublime singing.
Amy’s voice may have channelled an older musical form than Dusty’s, being influenced by Sarah Vaughan and the vocal giants of the big band era. But it was the reframing of her jazz phrasing in a ’60s soul setting (with more than a passing nod to hip hop too) that proved to be the most fruitful way to present those laceratingly honest lyrics. And yes, that honesty means she was possibly a difficult person to be around at times too.
Here’s a neat little musical journey to illustrate this remarkable performance from a remarkable singer. “Twist & Shout” was a skippy “La Bamba”-style song written by American songwriters Phil Medley and Bert Berns for the Top Notes (as produced by Phil Spector). Then the Isley Brothers got their hands on it, adding propulsive rhythm and soul, and had the hit. Their version was duly given a massive boot up the rear end by the Beatles, who recorded it for their debut album Please Please Me in 1963. Beverley Knight, a vocal powerhouse of British soul and all-round nice person (see?), was invited to record a cover version in Abbey Road by BBC Radio 2, for their all-star 50th anniversary recreation of that album. And if anything, her bootmark—kicking the song back towards the Isleys and gospel—is even bigger than theirs was.
Alison Moyet (Yazoo)
The early ’80s electropop boom was a time of polar opposites. Of frosty synthesizers piloted by introverts being burned alive by enormously emotive singers with big personalities (the classic “fire and ice” duo). There was Soft Cell, Eurythmics, Blancmange and there was Yazoo (also known as Yaz). Alison (also known as Alf) was the burning flame that kept Vince Clarke’s electronic igloo nice and warm.
She has the honesty and wayward streak of Amy Winehouse (having written an entire album—21—about the demise of one relationship) and the passion of Alison Moyet. She also has the fannish appreciation of modern R&B of Dusty Springfield—you’ve never seen a bigger Rihanna fan—and Beverley Knight’s approach to singing your own throat out and into the next room. She also has all of their record sales put together and squared.
Since her baby Angelo was born, we can presumably expect her next album to be short on songs of betrayal and long on songs about sleep deprivation, and not the sexy kind.
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