I've had a ton of people ask me for soul music recommendations over the years so I have finally gotten my stuff together to put up a sort of beginners guide for Soul music. The good thing about having waited this long is that now a ton of this music is available online and really easy to get for cheap. In addition to the artists listed below, I have a Stax page and a Motown page because both of those labels were so important that a ton of your favorite soul artists performed under one of those two labels. Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope this is helpful - enjoy!
Like the compilations below says, Sam Cooke was known by many as "the man who invented soul" and his influence is hard to overstate. He was also one of the first African-American musicians to create his own label and own his music. Also be sure to check out some of his gospel music with the Soul Stirrers.
A good documentary: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke
A good album to buy: The Man Who Invented Soul (4 CD compilation)
The "Godfather of Soul", James Brown was also known as "The Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness" & "Mr. Dynamite" and his live shows were legendary spectacles of energy & soul. His relentlessly tight grooves formed the basis of Funk and eventually served as the bedrock for Hip Hop many years later.
A great documentary: Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown
A good album to buy: Star Time (4 CD Compilation)
Perhaps the pre-eminent vocal talent in all of soul music, Aretha Franklin still reigns as the Queen of Soul. Her Atlantic recordings include most of her best work, often with the amazing Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm section. I highly recommend her covers of "You Send Me" and "Don't Play That Song" (among a million others).
A good album to buy: Queen of Soul the Atlantic Recordings (4 CDs)
Often underrated, Curtis Mayfield was one of few soul artists to write his own songs and he was responsible for the "Chicago Soul" sound. As his career went on, his music became the soundtrack of the Black Pride movement, changing with and changing the times themselves. Check out the later albums for more great music!
A good album to buy:
The Reverend Al is truly a uniqe talent. Through his collaboration with producer Willie Mitchell, Al Green found his signature sound and we were blessed with classics like "Let's Stay Together" and "I'm So Tired of Being Alone". But there are SO many more amazing songs that this compilation should only be a starting point.