Pop & Hiss
Appreciation

Percy Sledge's 'When a Man Loves a Woman,' a great American ballad

Celebrating the desperate soul ballad 'When a Man Loves a Woman,' as sung by the late Percy Sledge

The great Percy Sledge record “When a Man Loves a Woman” was released 49 years ago on Thursday. Credited to songwriters Andrew Wright and Calvin Lewis, it was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Ala., and featured some of the era’s great R&B instrumentalists.

It was the only song the two ever wrote together, though Sledge long insisted he played a crucial role in its creation. Credit issues aside, the voice of Percy Sledge, who died Tuesday, owned the song, and made it one of the most resonant ballads of the past half century.

Released on April 16, 1966, the song hit No. 1 and nearly 50 years later its emotion is just as powerful. A baby boomer classic, “When a Man Loves a Woman” was further embedded in American culture through its use in the 1983 film “The Big Chill." The recording also opens the film “The Crying Game,” and is the title of an Al Franken co-penned romantic comedy.  

A ballad about a devotion bordering on obsession, the song features Sledge embodying a soul who's desperate, lost and so bent pleasing his woman that he’s willing to turn his back on his friends, spend all his money on her, “give up all his comforts and sleep out in the rain.” As he sings, Sledge phrases the lines with both passion and futility, embodying those emotions with every syllable. It was Sledge’s biggest hit, and the song for which he will be remembered.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” was written in early 1966, Wright recalled to American Songwriter magazine in 1994. “We were set to play a Friday night dance, and we were practicing,” said Wright. “I was messing around on the organ when this riff came up out of nowhere. There was no one in the club but us. I told Calvin to go home and write some words.” He did, and over the next few weeks the song evolved after an Alabama radio DJ, Quin Ivy, suggested a few tweaks.

“He called me and said, ‘Do you mind if we change some of the lyrics,'” Lewis told American Songwriter in the same interview. “He wanted to diminish the negative … make it more of a love story in the bridge … and call it ‘When A Man Loves A Woman.’”

Sledge put himself at the center of the creation story during an AOL/Spinner interview in 2010. "When I wrote the song at first, it was called 'Why Did You Leave Me Baby.' And I changed it from that to 'When a Man Loves a Woman.' I just reversed it. Quin told me that if I was to write some lyrics around that melody and the expression I'd put into 'Why Did You Leave Me Baby,' he believed it would've been a hit record.

"He was one of the top disc jockeys at that time. Sure enough, he asked me if I had any lyrics for that. He said, "That's it! Write a story around that title! What a song that would be with that feeling you had!’ It was a song that was meant to be. It wasn't just what I had done; it was the musicians, the producer, the background singers, the right time," Sledge continued. Despite his ownership claim, however, Wright and Lewis are credited as sole writers of the song. 

Sledge was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. In his acceptance speech, he recalled the first time he realized he had a voice. Sledge said he was “10 years old, singing my songs in the fields, picking, chopping cotton, and my boss man tells me one day, ‘Perc, that voice that your using right now coming out of your throat, the whole world is going to hear one day.’”

Little did the boss man know how right he was.

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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