Percy Sledge: Singer whose hit When a Man Loves a Woman became one of the best-loved songs in the history of soul

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame described the ballad as having 'raised the bar for soul balladeering for all time'

Terence McCardle
Wednesday 15 April 2015 11:17 BST
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Sledge performs his signature song at the Musicians Hall of Fame Awards show in Nashville in 2008
Sledge performs his signature song at the Musicians Hall of Fame Awards show in Nashville in 2008 (AP)

Percy Sledge was the Alabama-born soul balladeer whose emotional, pleading style propelled “When a Man Loves a Woman” to the top of the rhythm and blues and pop charts in 1966 and made the song one of the defining soul records of all time.

A 2005 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, he possessed one of the most distinctive tenor voices in the Southern soul genre. With the ability to shift from a powerful shout to a softer, beseeching quaver, he gave each song an anguished delivery that suggested the lyrics – no matter how trite or cliched – conveyed matters of life and death.

His recordings, mostly produced in Muscle Shoals, included “Take Time to Know Her”, “Warm and Tender Love” and “It Tears Me Up”. His style was influenced as much by country music as by gospel and rhythm and blues, and he sometimes covered songs popularised by country performers such as Charlie Rich and Charlie Pride.

Writing in 1969, Charlie Gillett observed that Sledge “takes other people’s material at a tempo [so] slow you scarcely notice it’s moving at all, and creates atmospheres of searing despair that are hard to resist no matter how happy you are when you start listening.”

Sledge claimed to have co-written “When a Man Loves a Woman” – his first record and his signature song – from hard experience. As he told the story, he had worked as a hospital orderly and performed at weekends with an Alabama band called the Esquires Combo. When his girlfriend left him to seek a modelling career in New Jersey – with his best friend – Sledge, overcome with emotion, made up a song about it on the spot at a gig.

A local record producer, Quin Ivy, offered to record the song, then titled “Why Did You Leave Me Baby?”, provided Sledge come up with better lyrics. After several rewrites with bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright of the Esquires Combo, the song became “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a No 1 on both the rhythm and blues and pop charts in the US (it reached No 4 in Britain, and No 2 in 1987 after being used in a Levi’s jeans TV advertisement ). The record was picked up by Atlantic, who signed Sledge with Ivy as his primary producer.

The ballad, which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame described as having “raised the bar for soul balladeering for all time”, was covered by Bette Midler in the soundtrack to the 1979 film The Rose and by the blue-eyed-soul singer Michael Bolton in 1991. It also served as the title song for a 1994 film starring Meg Ryan and Andy García. And despite such lyrics as “if she’s bad, he can’t see it,” the song has also become a frequent first-dance request at weddings.

“What I did was tell a true part of my life, about a girl,” Sledge told the writer Anthony Musso. “As to the words, ‘Why did you leave me baby’, I turned it around to say ‘When a man loves a woman’, all he would do for her, and at the same time, I’m thinking that she’s going to leave me. I said that he’d even sleep out in the rain, give her his last dime and still, she’s going to leave me.”

After the song became a huge hit, Sledge said that he regretted giving all the songwriting credit to Lewis and Wright, neither of whom played on the record. The song’s arrangement, particularly Spooner Oldham’s funereal organ work, would influence another of the era’s enduring recordings, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, and serve as the template for Sledge’s later ballads, several of which were written by Oldham and his songwriting partner, the guitarist and pianist Dan Penn.

The market for Sledge’s sombre brand of love songs waned with the advent of funk and disco in the mid-1970s, although he remained a consistent draw overseas and continued to play smaller clubs in the US. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was heard on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam War film Platoon (1986) and was then re-released in Europe, where it became a hit for the second time.

In 1989 Sledge played at President George HW Bush’s inauguration because the Republican Party Chairman Lee Atwater, a guitarist, was a fan. That same year Sledge received one of the first lifetime achievement awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.

A 1994 Sledge album, Blue Night, with guest appearances from guitarists Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs and Mick Taylor, formerly of the Rolling Stones, was widely praised. It was his first album, and only his second recording, after a near 20-year absence from the studios. The same year, Sledge pleaded guilty to tax evasion for failing to report more than $260,000 in income; he was given five years’ probation and ordered to pay more than $95,000 in back taxes and participate in a substance-abuse programme.

Percy Tyrone Sledge was born in Leighton, Alabama in 1940. He joined an a cappella doo-wop group at 15 but said his favourite singers were country performers such as Hank Williams, Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins.

“The only radio station we got [in rural Alabama] was country music,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s all I knew. We didn’t hear rock’n’roll but for about 15 minutes real late at night.”

As he once told Mojo magazine, Sledge was recovering from an appendix operation when he first heard himself on the radio. His mother could hardly believe it, he recalled.

“I was still under the ether, my mom was by the bed, and she said, ‘Son, wake up, they just called to say the radio is fixed to play your record.’ I was still under that medicine, and it sounded like it was coming out of heaven, like floating clouds and stars.

“So when I finally woke up, my mom said, ‘Son, they played your record, and you know what? You can sing, can’t you? Ha ha ha! You can sing.’ ” In early 2014 he began withdrawing from concerts after reportedly being diagnosed with liver cancer.

Percy Tyrone Sledge, singer: born Leighton, Alabama 25 November 1941; married Rosa Singleton (12 children); died Baton Rouge, Louisiana 14 April 2015.

© The Washington Post

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