The way soul singer Percy Sledge often told the story, his unexpected entry into pop music immortality came out of a Christmas party performance gone south.
Sledge, who had been working as a hospital orderly and was often asked by patients to sing for them, was invited to entertain at a holiday gathering not long after his girlfriend had dumped him and headed to Los Angeles to pursue a modeling career, taking one of his best friends along as her new beau.
He told the band working with him to hit a chord, and began pouring his heart out about the pain he was going through. “I had a couple of Jack Daniel’s, and my eyes were as big as hen eggs,” he told Rolling Stone in 1988. “I was feeling light as a feather, and I just wanted to speak my mind.”
He called the song that bubbled up “Why Did You Leave Me.” Quin Ivy, a record producer who happened to be at the party, suggested that Sledge come up with another set of lyrics for the memorable tune he just concocted so they might record it. A few weeks later, Sledge came back to Ivy, apologetic for not having anything to show for his efforts, explaining, “When a man loves a woman, he can’t think about anything else.”
Ivy recognized a great idea when he heard it, and persuaded Sledge to use it in revamping “Why Did You Leave Me” with help from organist Andrew Wright and bassist Cameron Lewis, members of the Esquires Combo cover band that Sledge often sang with on weekends.
Ivy borrowed a few session musicians from the Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with keyboard player Spooner Oldham providing the long, ethereal organ chords that sucked listeners into the ballad “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge’s first recording. Against the odds, it quickly rose to No. 1 not only on the R&B sales charts, but on the overall Billboard Hot 100 singles ranking in early 1966.
It became a career-defining and -sustaining song for Sledge, who died at the age of 74 on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La., after a long fight with cancer.
“If Percy Sledge had only recorded ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ one of the greatest of all soul songs, he would have earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” states the Hall of Fame’s entry on Sledge, who was inducted in 2005. “No less an authority than [esteemed R&B producer and former Atlantic Records President] Jerry Wexler has called it ‘a transcendent moment ... a holy love hymn.’ ”
In fact, over the last five decades it has become a staple at weddings — an odd choice given its authentically agonized description of dysfunctional love: “If she’s bad, he can’t see it/She can do no wrong/And turn his back on his best friend, if he put her down.”
But that hasn’t stopped brides and grooms from embracing the tune — even such rock stars as Steven Van Zandt, guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who brought Sledge in to sing it at his 1982 wedding.
For Sledge, the song crystallized his musical identity as a purveyor of deeply felt songs of romantic longing.
“I live off that song,” Sledge told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1995. “All of my other songs, they are my children, but ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ is the granddaddy. Without it, I would’ve never found my style, never found my way or what I wanted to do with a ballad.”
Sledge did have other powerfully moving hits: “Warm and Tender Love,” “Take Time to Know Her” and “It Tears Me Up,” but none came close to the iconic status “When a Man Loves a Woman” achieved.
The song not only endured through the years but periodically resurfaced into the pop culture mainstream through prominent use in “The Big Chill” (1983), Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Platoon” and in 1992’s “The Crying Game.”
It returned again with a Grammy-winning 1992 version by singer Michael Bolton, who took considerable criticism for failing to acknowledge Sledge’s original when he collected his Grammy award. He later apologized to Sledge and sent a letter stating, “I have always felt that your performance was the element that made a great song a truly classic record and a standard.”
Sledge appeared to hold no grudges, and later cited Bolton’s recording as his favorite version by another singer. “If you live long enough to hear somebody else do your song, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings you can have,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2005. “Of course, you know for yourself no one can ever touch you on your song.”
Percy Sledge was born Nov. 25, 1940, in Leighton, Ala., growing up in a rural farming community where he helped his parents doing farm chores, his labors motivating him early on to find a less strenuous way to make a living.
Like other African Americans growing up in the rural south, Sledge often said that as a child he listened to more country music —artists such as Hank Williams, Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves — than blues or R&B, which often didn’t get radio time until the wee hours of the night. That contributed to the country-soul style that came to be known as Southern soul.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” is considered the first Southern soul hit to reach No. 1 on the mainstream pop music charts and helped open the door for others working in the genre, including Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. It also put Fame Studio and its founder Rick Hall on the radar screen of Atlantic Records, one of the great soul-R&B labels of the 1950s and 1960s, when Hall sent a tape of Sledge’s first session to Wexler in New York.
Wexler later brought Aretha Franklin to Muscle Shoals to record, and it was at Fame Studio that Franklin has said she found her musical style that led her to be crowned the Queen of Soul.
Sledge recorded only sporadically, preferring to perform in front of live audiences, which is primarily how he earned his living because he got no songwriting royalties from “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which was credited to Lewis and Wright.
In 1974, he released a song, “I’ll Be Your Everything,” written by George Soule, that reached No. 15 on the R&B singles chart and became the basis of a “Blurred Lines"-like copyright infringement suit in 1992. The boy band New Kids on the Block recorded a song with the same title, and songwriter Soule sued, claiming that the New Kids song copied portions of his song. But the group was not found liable because of insufficient evidence.
The 1990s brought some difficult times for Sledge, who was charged with tax evasion for not reporting $260,000 in income from 1987 to 1989, for which he could have face 15 years in prison. Instead, he was ordered to pay $100,000 in back taxes, serve six months in a halfway house and enter a substance abuse program. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said at the time. “I appreciate what the court has done for me.”
Sledge decided to return to the recording studio in 1994 when Chicago keyboardist and producer Barry Goldberg, who had played with Bob Dylan among others, and co-producer Saul Davis said they wanted to work with him.
“He only made nine records in his whole career,” Davis told The Times on Tuesday. “I’m not sure why — he told us it was always a combination of the wrong circumstances, the wrong producer, the wrong songs.”
The album they recorded together, “Blue Night,” scored a Grammy nomination for Sledge and gave a strong boost to his touring career. It was another decade before he chose to record again — a second outing that Goldberg and Davis produced titled “Shining Through the Rain.” It included songs that Davis suggested to Sledge such as maverick country singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues” and roots country artist Carla Olson’s “Misty Morning,” which included a guest vocal by Dylan’s son Jakob.
In 2013, he released “The Gospel of Percy Sledge,” a spiritual album featuring members of the country group Alabama and the Americana sibling duo The Secret Sisters, but he had to cut back on the 100 dates he was accustomed to playing each year upon being diagnosed with liver cancer in 2014.
Sledge, who was married twice and had 12 children, is survived by his wife, Rosa, his children and dozens of grandchildren, Davis said.