|Percy Sledge in 2012 at the Houston House of Blues.|
A No. 1 hit in 1966, “When a Man Loves a Woman” was Sledge’s debut single, an almost unbearably heartfelt ballad with a resonance he never approached again. Few singers could have. Its mood set by a mournful organ and dirge-like tempo, “When a Man Loves a Woman” was for many the definitive soul ballad, a testament of blinding, all-consuming love haunted by fear and graced by overwhelming emotion.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” was a personal triumph for Sledge, who seemed on the verge of sobbing throughout the production, and a breakthrough for Southern soul. It was the first No. 1 hit from Alabama’s burgeoning Muscle Shoals music scene, where Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones among others would record, and the first gold record for Atlantic Records.
Before he became famous, Sledge worked in the cotton fields around his hometown of Leighton in northwest Alabama and took a job in a hospital in nearby Sheffield. He also spent weekends playing with a rhythm-and-blues band called the Esquires. A patient at the hospital heard him singing while working and recommended him to record producer Quin Ivy.
Sledge recalled recording the song: “When I came into the studio, I was shaking like a leaf. I was scared.” He added that it was the “same melody that I sang when I was out in the fields. I just wailed out in the woods and let the echo come back to me.”
The composition of the song has long been a mystery. Some thought that Sledge wrote it himself. Sledge said he was inspired by a girlfriend who left him for a modeling career after he was laid off from a construction job in 1965, but he gave the songwriting credits to two Esquires bandmates, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, who helped him with the song.
While identified with the Muscle Shoals music scene, Sledge spent most of his career living in Baton Rouge. He was inducted in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
A Personal Memory
In 1984, around the Christmas season, a bunch of us from Music & Art High School (Now LaGuardia) went down to Rockefeller Plaza for the lighting of the Christmas Tree. A choir and chamber ensemble began to perform Pachelbel's Canon. I'll never forget when one of my buddies nudged me and began to sing when a man loves a woman, which fit over the canon perfectly. A bunch of us joined in until we were chased away by plaza security.
Not a true hoodlum memory by any stretch; but for a bunch of teenage music students, this was an ultimate act of defiance.
Thank you, Mr Sledge, for a true masterpiece.