On November 25, 1940, God created a great legend that would impact many lives near and far. He created a unique, distinguished sound by the name of Percy Sledge. Percy was a very down-to-earth, ordinary man who enjoyed life and people. He had the meek and humble spirit of a baby but also the voice that would send chills up your spine when he spoke. He traveled the world and blessed and touched many lives with his soulful hits, such as “Take Time to Know Her,” “Warm and Tender Love,” and last but certainly not least, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which is, without a doubt, his most popular ballad. His legacy will live on forever in many hearts and minds because he was loved and respected by many worldwide. May he rest in paradise.
As the song begins, it’s amazingly simple. There’s no dramatic build up, no minimalist entryway; it’s just the sound of the drums, bass, and a church organ starting up together. They wait as they call for some sense of devotion. We know that when the preacher-singer begins – and begin he will – that there will be a testimony, a preaching, a bearing of the soul. In the first ten seconds of the record we know that church has begun. Can I hear an Amen? Then, the singer/preacher begins. It’s an old Southern tradition familiar to most African-American churches in the Deep South, the preaching that has a story to tell, a truth to impart. But, in this case, the preacher’s voice isn’t filled with rage and the desperation of saving his flock from a burning hell. Rather, this preacher’s voice is a call to love. Not just any love, but the love that comes from a heart of passion. The passion is real. You can tell from this preacher’s voice. And so, he begins to call us all to love, real love, as he sings… “When a man loves a woman….” You know the rest. You’ve heard it a thousand times. And as the voice of the preacher-singer joins in alongside the church organ, the drums and bass, although it’s a singular voice, it seems like a chorus of universal truth. The preacher-singer’s voice seems to sing through the ages to the moment. The message of love comes from his core. It goes out through the radio, on vinyl 45 rpms, through television and into our hearts, deep into our hearts. And this song and this voice stays and will not, cannot be forgotten. Like the voice of his preacher-singer ancestors, it is a voice that saves us from ourselves. It saves us from our own personal hellfire. When God loves a man, we get Percy Sledge. When Percy Sledge loves a song, we get “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
When Percy Sledge died on April 14, he walked from being an American treasure to becoming an immortal legend, not only on the basis of one song, but on a career built on his love for music, fans, his God, his family and most of all, a life that allowed him to share his greatest gift, the beauty of his voice. It was a voice that knew the soul of the song deeply. He was able to take a simple song and make it glow with truth and joy. His most publically successful moments came during the ‘60s when he recorded songs that would allow his voice to be heard by so many throughout the world. His was the kind of voice that stops you in your tracks.
But, like so many soul singers of his era, he started with humble roots in the heart of the south amid segregation, poverty, and racism.
Born on November 25, 1940, in Alabama, he worked in the fields in his hometown of Leighton before taking a job as a hospital orderly. Like many artists of the region, he found his voice in the gospel music of his church. By the mid-1960s he was touring weekends, fronting a band known as the Esquires Combo. Through his job at the hospital he was introduced to a local record producer/DJ, Quin Ivy. The result was his first record contract.
The first song he recorded was “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Although it was a group effort consisting mainly of Esquires band members Andrew Wright and Calvin Lewis, with lyrical input from Sledge, Wright and Lewis were given the only songwriting credit. While producer, Quin Ivy, liked the melody, he pushed the band for more positive lyrics. The singer told how his lyrical inspiration came when a girlfriend left him for a modeling job out of the area. He began to work his lyrics around the melody created by Lewis and Wright. According to Percy Sledge in an interview with the L.A.Times:
“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 but it was also the musicians, the producer, the background singers, and the right time.”
Recorded and released in 1966, the song would spend two weeks at the number one position on the U.S. Billboard charts. He would have a follow-up hit with “Take Time to Know Her” during the 1960s. The phenomenal success of “When a Man Loves a Woman” assured Percy Sledge a constant place on the international touring circuit. He also experience a career renaissance in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the song was used in films and commercials.
But, once again, like many artists of the era, there was a lack of new material or opportunities to record without the assurance of a hit song with the same impact as his past hit. A glance over his discography shows a pattern of repackaging the same songs from earlier sessions.
However, in 1994, this would change thanks to a few fans in the music industry. We have to thank Saul Davis, Barry Goldberg, and Textones co-founder Carla Olson for Percy Sledge’s two most recent albums, 1994’s Grammy-nominated, Blue Night and 2004’s Shinning Through the Rain.
In a recent interview with husband and wife Saul Davis and Carla Olson, their memories were clear and their sense of honor and awe at working with Percy Sledge was palatable. How did it happen? According to Davis, “I was driving and I heard his warm and tender voice… it sounded like love. I began to wonder what’s going on with Percy Sledge these days. So I tracked him down through his agent. I really wanted to do a new album with him with new material. A friend in Sweden suggested a label. That’s where our funding came from. Our session players included Carla, Mick Taylor, Bobby Womack, and Greg Leisz.”
Upon recently hearing this album, co-produced with blues legend, Barry Goldberg, it retains the old Muscle Shoals feel and simplicity. The songs were carefully chosen for the singer, including an unreleased song written by the Bee Gees. It won the W.C. Handy Blues album of the year in 1996. It was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
According to Carla Olson the experience was like no other she had ever experienced in her life time:
“Percy was one of a kind. He had such a powerful voice. Oh, that voice… you just never could think it could be anyone else once you heard him singing. So distinctive. And he was singing one of my songs. What an honor! He was such a gentleman. He was so sweet. I’d think, ‘How can any man be so sweet?’ Not only did we record the albums, but we toured overseas. At one of our stops, the crowds at the airport were so crazy, we had to smuggle him out of the plane in a food cart!”
But there were personal times as well between Carla and Percy.
“Once, we were driving home from the studio during 1994. He was really curious about songwriting. He’d ask me how I write songs. I asked him if he had a piano and when he said he did, I encouraged him to pick out the notes to a melody. He was like a kid. He got excited and wanted to try it right away. I don’t know if he ever started writing songs. The funniest thing was when I asked him which peer-singer scared him. He said Joe Tex! He said he’d never want to follow Joe Tex!”
Carla Olson, Barry Goldberg, and Saul Davis recorded a follow-up to Blue Night in 2004 with artistic results equal to its predecessor. In 2005, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
But, the story wasn’t over for Percy Sledge. His last album, recorded and released in 2013, was homecoming for him, returning to him to his roots. The Gospel of Percy Sledge stands up to all of his previous work with a solid soul/gospel feel and his voice in fine form, inspiring as he returns one last time to the studio to become the preacher-singer. Most notably, his interpretation of Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately” is enough to make the Belfast singer proud. It also is fitting that as he began to face his own mortality on earth, he embraced the music of his youth and the songs he held deepest in his spirit.
When he died in April, it was not a complete surprise. He had been receiving hospice care for terminal liver cancer. But, when his voice was silenced, the universe felt like a sadder and smaller place. However, the voice of the preacher-singer cannot be silenced. It was clear at his funeral when an impressive roster of gospel, soul, and rock musicians gathered to celebrate his life in a three-hour service. But, it’s not goodbye. We can’t say goodbye to the likes of Percy Sledge. Fortunately, we can once again, turn out the lights, get close the ones we love, and let him one more time sing… “When a man loves a woman….”