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Sam Smith Breaks Down 10 Great R&B Voices

British crooner on Whitney, Mariah, Prince and more

Sam Smith
Keipher McKennie/WireImage
May 13, 2014 4:10 PM ET

For someone born the same year Whitney Houston starred in The Bodyguard, Sam Smith knows plenty about R&B and mind-blowing voices. "Both my mom and dad loved soul music and played it constantly when I was a kid, and that made me fall in love with it, mainly the female voice," says Smith, the 21-year-old Brit-soul sensation who sang on UK hits by Disclosure and Naughty Boy and will release his debut album in June. "My mom would play soul music in the car when taking us to school, and it was Whitney and Chaka Khan. My whole family has a lot of powerful women, and so hearing women sing about empowerment and independence, it reminded me of my family and the amazing women in it."

Who Is Sam Smith? A Quick Primer on the U.K. Soul Singer

1. Whitney Houston, "How Will I Know" (1985)
A Whitney Houston song that makes me happy – it's a feel-good song. I love the juxtaposition of a melancholy lyric with an upbeat sound. People forget that's how she rose to fame. The more mature Whitney, like "I Will Always Love You," came later.

2. Mariah Carey, "Mine Again" (2005)
Unbelievable – a classically written soul song. God, the power in her voice is ridiculous. She hits the notes spot-on, it's amazing. I love the control she has over her voice. I'm not listening to the lyric. More the singing in that tune.

3. Blood Orange, "Chamakay" (2013)
I'm such a huge fan of Dev Hynes. I'm obsessed with this recent album. His music is so otherworldly. This song for me is like summer – it's sexy and uplifting. It sounds like the way a high-fashion perfume ad looks.

4. Prince, "Erotic City" (1984)
Howard Lawrence from Disclosure put me onto this one, which was my first introduction to Prince. The way he used his voice, the way he pitches his voice up and down – it must have been ahead of its time when it came out. It sounds the way songs sound on the radio now. Mad!

5. Musiq Soulchild, "Just Friends (Sunny)" (2000)
When my collaborator Jimmy Napes and I were in the studio, he put me onto this tune. We wanted to make something that sounded like this song. The vocals are amazing and the soul and funk in it are ridiculous. He doesn't push too much – he lays back on it.

6. Etta James, "All I Could Do Was Cry" (1960)
I was introduced to this when I saw Cadillac Records and Beyonce sang this song. It's one of my favorite lyrics. The whole idea of falling in love with someone who doesn't love you back – it's heartbreaking. She's standing in church watching the love of her life get married. I can relate to that hugely. I almost had a similar experience. You can hear the pain in Etta James' voice.

7. Tori Kelly, "Paper Hearts" (2013)
I went to South by Southwest in March and saw her sing this song live, and I'd never reacted physically to a singer like that before in my life. I was grabbing people. Her vocal ability is unbelievable. She's a master of her voice, and this song showcases that voice, which is like candy covered in honey.

8. Earth Wind & Fire, "September" (1978)
My family gets together whenever we can and the night always ends with us completely pissed [drunk] and dancing to this song. I have no idea why. You listen to it and it's joyful and it makes me want to dance.

9. Stevie Wonder, "Knocks Me off My Feet" (1976)
The best Stevie Wonder song ever. I will forever be trying to write a song like this. It's so clever, and it sounds like three songs in one. It's unlike anything I've ever heard. I grew up hearing this song, and it sounded so original and it still does now.

10. Aretha Franklin, "I Say a Little Prayer" (1968)
This is the first song I ever remember hearing. It's in the film My Best Friend's Wedding, and my mom was watching it. Hearing this song is my first memory of hearing music.

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