Soul music has its roots in
traditional African-American gospel music and
rhythm and blues, and the hybridization of their respective religious and secular styles, in both lyrical content and instrumentation, that began to occur in the 1950s. The term soul had been used among African-American musicians to emphasize the feeling of being an African-American in the United States.
 According to
Though this hybrid produced a clutch of hits in the R&B market in the early 1950s, only the most adventurous white fans felt its impact at the time; the rest had to wait for the coming of soul music in the 1960s to feel the rush of
rock and roll sung gospel-style.
According to another source, "Soul music was the result of the urbanization and commercialization of rhythm and blues in the '60s."
 The phrase "soul music" itself, referring to gospel-style music with secular lyrics, is first attested in 1961.
 The term 'soul' in African-American parlance has connotations of African-American pride and culture.
Gospel groups in the 1940s and 1950s occasionally used the term as part of their name. The
jazz style that derived from gospel came to be called
soul jazz. As singers and arrangers began using techniques from gospel and soul jazz in African-American popular music during the 1960s, soul music gradually functioned as an umbrella term for the African-American popular music at the time.
Important innovators whose recordings in the 1950s contributed to the emergence of soul music included
Hank Ballard, and
Ray Charles is often cited as popularizing the soul genre with his string of hits starting with 1954's "
I Got a Woman".
Bobby Womack said: "Ray was the genius. He turned the world onto soul music."
 Charles was open in acknowledging the influence of
Pilgrim Travelers vocalist Jesse Whitaker on his singing style.
Little Richard (who inspired
James Brown were equally influential. Brown was known as the "Godfather of Soul"
 and Richard proclaimed himself the "king of rockin' and rollin', rhythm and blues soulin'", because his music embodied elements of all three, and because he inspired artists in all three genres.
Sam Cooke and
Jackie Wilson are also often acknowledged as soul forefathers.
 Cooke became popular as the lead singer of gospel group
The Soul Stirrers, before controversially moving into secular music. His recording of "
You Send Me" in 1957 launched a successful
pop career, and his 1962 recording of "
Bring It On Home To Me" has been described as "perhaps the first record to define the soul experience".
 Jackie Wilson, a contemporary of both Cooke and James Brown, also achieved
crossover success in 1957 with "
Reet Petite", and was particularly influential for his dramatic delivery and performances.