RIP: Percy Sledge, 1941-2015

By Don Wilcock

Percy Sledge passed away on Tuesday (April 14) from liver cancer. He recorded six songs in Muscle Shoals, Alabama on February 17, 1966, and he liked all five of the others better than he did “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

“I didn’t know anything about music,” he told me in 2004. “All I done was just sing.” But Sledge producer Quinty Ivy felt differently, and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler “went crazy, absolutely crazy about the song.” “When a Man Loves a Woman” became Atlantic Records’ first million seller. It became one of the cuts in “The Big Chill,” a film that defined ’60s soul for the generations to follow. And it unilaterally established a career for Sledge that still sustained him 38 years later when I saw him perform at Columbia-Greene Community College in April, 2004.

It was a song that almost never saw the light of day. It began with a catchy melody, a completely different set of lyrics and a title that was the polar opposite of what it would eventually become – “Why Did You Leave Me.” Sledge was lead singer in a band called the Esquires playing fraternity party gigs at Ole Miss and doing covers of Beatles hits and soul smashes like James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Wilson Picket’s “634-5789” and “Mustang Sally.” One night, Ivy who was establishing himself with a studio in Sheffield, Alabama, heard Sledge sing an original with the Esquires.

“When he heard me do ‘Why Did You Leave Me, Baby,’ he just fell in love with the melody. He thought it was just so fabulous, the expression I put in the lyrics.” But Ivy wanted the lyrics to express what he heard in the melody. “He said if I was to write a strong story behind that feeling that I put into that song, I might have a good record. So I just reversed it. I was talking about why did you leave me, and then I turned around and said, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ with this feeling.”

Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records had already established the label with artists like Ruth Brown and Wilson Pickett. When he heard the tape of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” he sent it back to Ivy with a suggestion to cut it one more time with clearer enunciation so you could understand every word. “We did it one time, not over and over,” says Sledge about the redo. “Quint said, “This is it!” Then we sent back to Jerry and Jerry called us up and said, ‘Congratulations! You all got a monster.’ This guy was so superior, man. He had some ears on him. It was unbelievable.”

Sledge may not have thought the song was a hit himself, but he certainly did believe in the lyrics. The song along with Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Otis Redding’s “Dock of The Bay” established the high water line in soul music for a man’s dedication and obsession for his love. “I would do anything,” says Sledge recalling his inspiration for the song. “And that’s the way I felt about this girl. And I thought she’d left me for another guy.”

Years later, Sledge found out that a friend had lied to him about the bad intentions of the lost love who inspired the song. Yes, she would have come back to him. To make matters worse, the song, which ranks 53rd on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest of all time, is credited to two of Sledge’s early bandmates, the bassist Calvin Lewis and the organist Andrew Wright, who assisted with the arrangement. Sledge never got any royalties for writing his signature song.

Nevertheless, the song won him stature that he lacked in height, “especially since I got to be a older man. What goes on in my little world around that song, man! And I’m only five foot six.”

“When a Man Loves a Woman” made him seven feet tall in the eyes of women around the world. It became the title song for a Disney film of the same name. And the song played a prominent role in TV shows as varied as “Moonlighting,” “China Beach,” “Thirtysomething” and “The Wonder Years.”

But maybe the biggest ripple it ever made was when Michael Bolton went to number one with his cover version in 1992. He won a Grammy for the song and neglected to mention Percy Sledge in his acceptance speech. He later sent his regrets to Sledge along with enough roses to fill a hotel room. In his letter, Bolton said, “I have always felt your performance was the elements that made a great song a truly classic record and standard. Please allow me to thank you directly for the soul and inspiration that will never fade.”

Percy Sledge dead at 74…

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