When word came yesterday that Percy Sledge had died at the age of 74, social media lit up with mentions of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” And why not? Sledge’s 1966 smash was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as the R&B chart, and it remains one of the most beloved records in the history of popular music.
The thing is, discussion of Sledge’s legacy should not begin and end with “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Percy recorded a number of great records over the course of his career. If you can find a copy, a 2011 box set called The Atlantic Recordings (Rhino Handmade) tells his story beautifully. Hey Rhino, how about getting this back into print? If the Atlantic Recordings box eludes you, there are any number of good compilations that you can look for.
Percy Sledge came from a small farming town called Leighton, Alabama, where he was born in 1940. As a youngster he worked in the fields before getting a job as a hospital orderly in Sheffield. Sledge had started singing in a gospel choir, and he continued as part of a group called the Esquires that toured the south on weekends. With the Esquires he sang a in a variety of musical styles that included takes Elvis Presley, the Beatles, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and others. The experience of singing in a wide range of styles served him well when the time came for his indelible Atlantic recordings.
Sledge’s break came when a mutual friend introduced him to record producer Quin Ivy. Following an audition, Percy was signed to a recording contract. The first single to be released under that contract was “When a Man Loves a Woman.” The initial recording took place at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, and Hall arranged a distribution deal with Atlantic. Something wasn’t quite right though, and leave it to Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler to hear it. Wexler said that the horns were out of tune on the recording, and a second recording took place at Norala Sound Studio in Sheffield. That might have been the version that became a hit, although according to Muscle Shoals musician David Hood the tapes got mixed up and the hit version is the original one that was recorded at FAME.
The question of who wrote “When a Man Loves a Woman” has been debated for years. It is credited to Sledge’s Esquires bandmates Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, but Sledge later claimed that he had earned a co-writer credit. He claimed that it was his experience of being left by a girlfriend who wanted to pursue a modeling career that influenced the song’s lyrics. Given the massive success of the record it’s certainly no wonder that everyone wanted a piece. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was the first Southern soul record to hit the #1 spot on the pop chart. Author Peter Guralnick wrote of the record, “Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song.”
Anyone would have had a hard time matching the kind of success that Sledge’s first single found. The fact that he never did quite match that success doesn’t mean that he stopped trying, and certainly doesn’t mean that he didn’t make more great records. In 1966 alone he released two more Southern soul classics, “Warm and Tender Love,” and “It Tears Me Up.” The latter was written by the great songwriting team of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, and made it to #20 on the pop chart, and #7 on the R&B chart.
More classics followed over the next few years including “Out of Left Field,” “Love Me Tender,” “Just Out of Reach (Of My Empty Arms),” and “Cover Me.” While all of these singles made the charts, only 1968’s “Take Time to Know Her” had Top 20 success, reaching #11 on Billboard Hot 100, and #6 on the R&B chart. All of these records featured the classic sound of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (the Swampers), and they are all essential recordings.
Although chart success continued to be elusive, Sledge never stopped performing and recording. In the early ’70s he left Atlantic for Capricorn Records. He toured the world, at one point doing 100 concerts a year in South Africa alone. In 1980, Sledge’s career was reborn as “When a Man Loves a Woman” was a huge hit all over again after it was part of a Levi’s commercial. Sledge continued touring and recording, releasing Blue Night in 1994, and Shining Through the Rain ten years later.
Percy Sledge had a long and distinguished career. In 1989 he was awarded a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award. He is a member of the Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame (2004), the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame (2007), and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (2010). In 2005, Percy Sledge was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Very few voices in the history of popular music can match the power, soul, and emotion that was found in the voice of Percy Sledge. While we here on earth are faced with the loss of that great voice, the heavenly choir is sounding a lot better today.