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. No less an authority than Jerry Wexler has called it “a transcendent moment….a holy love hymn.” Released on Atlantic in 1966, “When a Man Loves a Woman” topped the R&B and pop charts for multiple weeks and raised the bar for soul balladeering for all time. Yet Sledge’s career didn’t end with that momentous first single. Over the years he racked up a dozen hits at Atlantic, including “Warm and Tender Love,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Out of Left Field” and “Take Time to Know Her.”
Sledge, who was born in Leighton, Alabama, was working as a hospital orderly when he began playing clubs and frat parties with the Esquires, a locally popular group, in 1965. As he recalls, “I was singing every style of music: the Beatles, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Motown,Sam Cooke, the Platters.” That broad exposure gave him a soulful versatility as a singer that is evident on his Atlantic recordings.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” was Sledge’s first single, cut by producers Quin Ivy and Marlin Greene at their modest studio in Sheffield, Alabama. Sledge had carried the song’s melody with him for a long time. “I hummed it all my life, even when I was picking and chopping cotton in the fields,” he recalls.
He improvised words to go with his melody one night while performing at a frat party at the University of Mississippi, and Ivy, who was then a college student, told him, “If you ever think about cutting a record, come on by, because I love that melody.”
Inspired by a real-life situation involving a girl who left Sledge for another guy, the song began as “Why Did You Leave Me, Baby?” and evolved into “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Sledge naively gave the writing credit to bassist Cameron Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, his Esquires bandmates who helped with chords and the arrangement.
Sledge’s forlorn, crying vocal style, which betrayed his roots in gospel, found him reaching into his upper register without breaking into falsetto. The purity of his voice, as music journalist Dave Marsh noted, was something like hearing “the South itself, in all its bountiful, contradictory mystery.” It was literally the first Southern soul record to top the pop charts. Of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Peter Guralnik wrote, “Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song.”
Heartbroken ballads about loneliness, attraction and betrayal were Sledge’s specialty, and they filled the four albums he cut during his late-Sixties tenure at Atlantic: When a Man Loves a Woman (1966), Warm and Tender Soul (1966), The Percy Sledge Way (1967) and Take Time and Know Her (1968). As he liked to say, “Most artists judge their success by how much noise they create. I prefer my audience to be quiet.”
From Atlantic, Sledge moved to Capricorn Records, where he cut I’ll Be Your Everything (1974). In 1983, he recorded an album, Percy!, on Monument. More than a decaded passed before his next new album, Blue Night, on the Pointblank label in 1995. Guests on that project included Steve Cropper (from Booker T. and the M.G.’s) and Bobby Womack. In between releases, Sledge saw “When a Man Loves a Woman” return to popularity when it was included on the soundtrack for Platoon, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film about the Vietnam war. That same year, “When a Man Loves a Woman” was re-released in Britain, reaching #2.
In 1989, Sledge received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s first Career Achievement Award. Even though his post-Atlantic recordings have been infrequent, Sledge has remained an in-demand performer, averaging about a hundred dates a year in the U.S. and Europe.