The four-to-the-floor pulse of house music has always paired exquisitely with the human voice. When house music first started bumping out of the gay Chicago nightclub The Warehouse in the 1980s, pioneering producers Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard worked with vocalists like Jamie Principle and Robert Owens to infuse their metronomic rhythms with a personal touch.
This man-meets-machine formula has since served as a bedrock for countless variations on house music, helping provide a powerful trigger for euphoric release on the dancefloor. Queens and divas have played a central role in some of house’s biggest hits going back to the late 1980s—and more recently, house has fully entered the pop pantheon via stars like Dua Lipa and Beyoncé on her luminescent 2022 album Renaissance.
Although house emerged as an extension of disco, house singers aren’t usually anointed to the same level as Donna Summer, Diana Ross, or Sylvester. Beyoncé hits aside, house tracks and songs tend to use vocals in the same way a producer would use a drum loop or synth riff: as a raw, plasticine material, freely subject to post-production sampling, rearranging, and editing. As Simon Reynolds wrote in Energy Flash, his landmark 1998 book on rave culture: “House makes the producer, not the singer, a star.”
Still, house blossomed and multiplied in part thanks to key collaborations between luminary producers and their vocal collaborators and muses. A singer’s aching murmurs of desire, histrionic bursts of emotion, and calls for spiritual unity set house apart from techno (house’s murkier, moodier counterpart) while helping maintain the genre’s links to disco and soul. Hearing the cries of a classic house diva can also guide clubgoers’ ecstatic energy, facilitating their sometimes chemically-enhanced interface with the divine. So here’s a rundown—in alphabetical order—of some of the greatest vocalists who helped build house.
The House Vocalists that Revolutionized the Genre:
Norma Jean Bell
A singer, producer, and saxophone player with a career going back to the mid-1970s, Norma Jean Bell had successful runs performing with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, and George Clinton before launching her own label Pandamonium in the early 1990s and staking her claim in the house canon with the 1996 single “I’m the Baddest Bitch (In the Room).” The track (and the beloved remix by Detroit collaborator Moodymann) can breathe life onto even the saddest dancefloors as Bell throws down jazzy sax runs alongside her virtuosic R&B-style vocal melismas and sensuously confident proclamations.
The track’s epic hybrid of jazz, R&B, and house alone could have secured Bell’s legacy as the “baddest bitch.” Still, she teamed with Moodymann on a number of other classic singles as well, and her Peacefrog-released 2001 album Come Into My Room still stands as one of the silkiest, most sophisticated deep-house productions ever made.
Kenny Bobien (king of gospel house)
House music has origins in notions of transcendent release and sweat-soaked connectivity, and many of the greatest house singers got their start in church choirs. But New Jersey gospel-house icon Kenny Bobien has taken the house format in an explicitly spiritual direction. Under Bobien’s command, a driving 4X4 beat becomes the platform for vocal techniques taken straight from the gospel tradition: call-and-response chants, airy falsetto ornamentations, and chest-voice exultations in God.
Defying dance music stereotypes, Bobien is a pastor in addition to being a house singer, and his conviction shows through in Underground Ministries’ 1999 club-ready remake of the 19th-century Black spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved”: a funky bass-line bounces up and down as Bobien rises from a gentle hum to soaring cries. Even if you’re at the club for a more secular kind of release, you can’t deny Bobien’s power to move both body and soul.
Puerto Rican singer Linda Viera Caballero—better known as La India or simply India—has led a splendid career bringing her supple, brassy vocals to both salsa hits and electronic dance music productions. In the 1990s, between collaborations with Latin jazz greats like Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, she made watershed contributions to the house oeuvre with a string of singles recorded with the famed Masters At Work production duo, consisting of “Little” Louie Vega (Caballero’s husband at the time) and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez.
India’s powers are apparent on 1993’s “I Can’t Get No Sleep (Ken/Lou 12″)”: After peppering the opening minutes with restrained coos and whispers, she eventually bursts out into a full-throated singsong hook, her voice almost cracking with feeling as she hits the upper registers. The masterful vocal performance infuses a streamlined beat with the kind of agonizing tension that gets people soaking through their clothes on a dancefloor. She brought the same vibrant energy to later projects like Nuyorican Soul, which combined house grooves with Latin pop. She’s more than earned a place among the top house vocalists of all time.
As a member of the group Fingers Inc., Ohio-born singer Robert Owens contributed to one of the first long-player house albums in the form of 1988’s Another Side. Owens grew up singing in church choirs before meeting Larry Heard while working as a DJ, and they formed Fingers Inc. with fellow vocalist Ron Wilson. Although Heard is better known for instrumental tracks like “Washing Machine” and “Mystery of Love” (a remix of which has become a recent Tik-Tok fave), Owens stands out on Another Side for the way his silky vocals help alchemize simple feelings and soulful techniques into a sound that would be known as deep-house.
Owens’ other recordings (including several solo albums recorded between 1990 and 2010) further cement his reputation as a great singer who innately understands the needs of a club track. Instead of getting cut up and anonymized like many other vocalists of the era, he takes center stage on Frankie Knuckles and Satoshi Tomiie’s 1989 cut “Tears.” But rather than fully take the lead with a strong melody, in the manner of a pop singer, he helps drive the groove along, slinking around the beat with his supple vocal lines, ad-libs, and come-ons.
Robin S.’s disco-tinged debut single “Show Me Love” didn’t make much of an impact when it first dropped in 1990, but a remix by Swedish DJ StoneBridge released three years later reframed her as the ultimate diva of conflicted love. Not to be mistaken with Robyn’s 1997 single of the same name, the smash remix of “Show Me Love” finds Robin demanding romantic validation over a pumping TR-909 beat and a glassy, glistening earworm of a bass-line played on the Korg M-1 synth.
Her raw-throated delivery underscores her fed-up attitude in the lyrics, while the black pantsuit she wears on the cover of her 1993 album Show Me Love gives her the relatable look of a friendly high school admin or principal. The sentiments behind the 1993 house hit (which Beyoncé sampled “Show Me Love” on her 2022 song “Break My Soul”) are innately, eternally human, helping explain Robin S.’s enduring appeal even after 30 years.
One of the first “queens of house” to emerge in Chicago in the mid-1980s, Liz Torres made an indelible mark in the studio and in live showings at clubs like New York’s famed Paradise Garage with her sultry voice, biting lyrics, and marvelous sense of style. The Puerto Rican-born, Chicago-raised singer is best known for her work with the group Master C & J, whose stark, muscular, Latin percussion-guided singles like “Mind Games” and “What You Make Me Feel” benefit enormously from Torres’ no-nonsense magnetism and queer-friendly outspokenness.
Torres’ efforts to achieve crossover success mostly fell flat when Jive released her solo album The Queen Is In The House in 1990. But her talents have always shone through in a dance context: She brought all of her charisma to a guest appearance on Danny Tenaglia’s 1998 progressive house effort Tourism, and she flipped the script again with the Spanish-language lyrics of her 2013 comeback single “Your Love Is All I Need.”
A disco queen before she was a house diva, Martha Wash is the voice behind the now-ubiquitous “Everybody dance now!” vocal hook that runs through C+C Music Factory’s 1990 hip-house smash “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Unfortunately, nobody knew that was her voice when the single first came out, because the New York duo failed to give her proper credit—a problem that was eventually rectified when Wash took C+C Music Factory to court.
Wash won a legal battle with Italian house group Black Box around the same time for basically the same reasons, and her efforts to secure credit for herself—and set a precedent for other dance-music singers—goes a long way to earning her a place on this list. But really, it’s the effortless mastery of craft and knee-shaking vocal intensity she brings to “Gonna Make You Sweat” and tracks like 1992’s “Carry On” that truly make her one of the greats.
Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” was so ubiquitous in the early 1990s that it was parodied in an episode of the sketch comedy series In Living Color. Paired with Waters’ ridiculously catchy, wordless vocal hook (“La da dee, la da da / La da dee, la da da”), the track brilliantly sees through the bustle of urban life, prodding listeners to step outside of their personal bubble to sympathize with those less fortunate.
Waters grew up in a musical family—her great aunt, Ethel Waters, was a pioneering Black singer in Hollywood musicals in the 1940s, and her father was a jazz musician. After “Gypsy Woman,” she continued moving the needle in dance pop with her 1994 comeback “100% Pure Love” and, later, her and Alex Gaudino’s 2006 heater “Destination Calabria.” Her last solo album dropped in 1997. However, she’s released numerous singles since then, and her smoky voice still makes her an unmistakable presence—and one of the top house vocalists of all time.
We started DoubleBlind two years ago at a time when even the largest magazines and media companies were cutting staff and going out of business. At the time we made a commitment: we will never have a paywall, we will never rely on advertisers we don’t believe in to fund our reporting, and we will always be accessible via email and social media to support people for free on their journeys with plant medicines.
To help us do this, if you feel called and can afford it, we ask you to consider becoming a monthly member and supporting our work. In exchange, you'll receive a subscription to our print magazine, monthly calls with leading psychedelic experts, access to our psychedelic community, and much more.