Percy Sledge, who sang the 1966 hit “When a Man Loves a Woman,” died Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was 74. Sledge recorded and toured prolifically during his five-decade career before liver cancer took his life. He recorded a string of hits, including “Warm and Tender Love” and “I’ll Be Your Everything,” but none were as big as his first.
Sledge was born in 1940 in Leighton, Alabama, where he honed his voice in the gospel choir. In his mid-20s he took a job as a hospital orderly. “You should make records,” the patients told him, so Sledge joined the Esquires Combo in 1965. The band played local clubs and fraternity parties.
“I was singing every style of music — the Beatles, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Motown, Sam Cooke, the Platters,” Sledge recalled. Two of his band mates, Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, were still in high school at the time.
One night, the three of them came up with a song called “Why Did You Leave Me, Baby,” which featured an unforgettable descending organ riff that recalled Bach’s “Air on a G String” and Pachelbel’s Canon. After some tinkering, the song was recorded by local DJ and record producer Quinn Ivy and given the title "When a Man Loves a Woman." Musicians from Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals played on the session, including organist Spooner Oldham and drummer Roger Hawkins — young white men who would go on to help define Southern soul.
At Ivy’s request, Hall sent the recording to Atlantic Records vice president Jerry Wexler, one of the great music men, who had worked with soul pioneers Ray Charles and Ruth Brown. A white kid from Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, Wexler coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace the outdated “race records.” He knew there was talent in Alabama and listened to the recording Hall sent him.
“He got back to me,” Hall remembered, “and said, ‘I don’t think it’s a hit.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’ve lost your hearing.’”
Hall was so insistent on the potential of “When a Man Loves a Woman” that Wexler agreed to release it as a single but first sent it back to be rerecorded, pointing out that the horns on the original take were noticeably out of tune. A new horn section was quickly overdubbed in Memphis. Atlantic, however, was in such a hurry to release the single that they used the original recording as the master. It’s not clear whether Atlantic ever got the new version at all. Wexler called Ivy after the single’s release. “Aren’t you glad you recut it?” he asked. “Jerry,” he was told, “You used the original, out-of-tune horns and all.”
“When a Man Loves a Woman” was the first gold record for Atlantic. It topped both the main and and R&B Billboard charts in 1966 and reached the top 10 in the United Kingdom as well. Hall went on to record soul icons Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, all of whom did extraordinary work at Muscle Shoals. Most of these recordings were released on the Atlantic label. It all started with “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Sledge was not credited with writing “When a Man Loves a Woman,” even though he claimed the melody as his. “I hummed it all my life,” he said, “even when I was picking and chopping cotton in the fields.” Instead, writing credit went to fellow Esquires Combo members Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, who chose to stay in high school once the record became a hit rather than go out on the road. This decision cost Sledge millions in potential royalty earnings, but he didn’t seem bitter and once told the BBC, “I felt like if God fixed it in my mouth to give it to them. I won’t change anything about it. I’m satisfied with what I wrote, but I cut my kids out of so much because I gave it to someone else. I just wasn’t thinking.”
After the song became a hit, Sledge began a productive relationship with Muscle Shoals writers Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, perfecting a formula of mid-tempo slow burners like “Out of Left Field.” He made songs he covered, like “Dark End of the Street” and “Love Me Tender,” his own, even though they were originally hits for others.
No matter who wrote it or played on the session, no matter how out of tune the horns were or what label released the single, “When a Man Loves a Woman” works because Sledge sang it. He delivered the song with a keening wail, never overdriving his voice when singing a lyric that rarely rhymes. The vulnerability of his delivery, the rawness, makes his rendition absolutely authoritative.
Sledge was not a screamer like Wilson Pickett, nor steeped in the church like Aretha Franklin. He sang with an emotional directness that no amount of flash or technique could disguise.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” has had a life of its own. Bette Midler had a hit with her cover of it in 1980. It made its way onto the soundtracks of “The Big Chill” and “The Crying Game.” It charted for a second time in the U.K. — and at No. 2, higher than the first time — when it appeared in the soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” as well as a Levi's ad. Michael Bolton’s 1991 version was also a No. 1 hit and earned the singer a Grammy.
But “When a Man Loves a Woman” will always be a Percy Sledge song. It will always belong to that gap-toothed young man with processed hair who stepped out of the obscurity of the hospital and the cotton field and into the world. After all, it was his melody. “I just wailed out in the woods,” he once said of it, “and let the echo come back to me.”
Sledge was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. He was also a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He is survived by his wife and children.