The soul world lost another luminary on April 14 when Percy Sledge, the singer behind the classic ballad "When A Man Loves A Woman," passed away in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His no-holds-barred singing style graced 1960s singles such as "Take Time to Know Her," "Warm and Tender Love," and "It Tears Me Up." Yet his legacy was sealed in 1966 when he released "When A Man Loves A Woman," a massive hit that topped the R&B and pop charts for several weeks.
Born in Leighton, Alabama in 1940, Sledge grew up honing his singing skills. During his early twenties he was working as a hospital orderly while moonlighting as a singer with the Esquires (also known as the Esquires Combo). A popular local group, the band frequented clubs and frat parties, playing the hits of the day to audiences in 1965. Hearing the Esquires, DJ Quin Ivy advised Sledge to pursue a solo career, and offered to produce a track Sledge had penned: "When A Man Loves A Woman." The song began life as a melody Sledge had frequently hummed to himself. As he told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, "I hummed it all my life, even when I was picking and chopping cotton in the fields." During a frat party gig at the University of Mississippi, he improvised lyrics to go with the melody. Impressed, Ivy informed Sledge that he would assist Sledge in further developing the track.
Due to the extremely personal nature of the lyrics, it comes as no surprise that Sledge based his lyrics on a real-life incident. His onetime girlfriend had left him for another guy, inspiring the song's original title: "Why Did You Leave Me, Baby?" According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, Sledge granted writing credit to Esquires bandmates Cameron Lewis and Andrew Wright; while they did help him with the chords and arrangement, it was Sledge who penned the lyrics.
Recording the single at Ivy's small studio in Sheffield, Alabama in 1966, Sledge poured his heart into the heartbreaking lyrics. His gospel roots permeated each word, his clear voice soaring as he enticed listeners to experience his pain. "He'd give up all his comforts, sleep out in the rain /
If she said that's the way it ought to be," he wailed, admitting he would "turn his back on his best friend" if it would save their romance. As the song continued, he sang of the contradictions of love: he may love the woman "deep down in his soul," yet his beloved possesses the ability to "bring him such misery." Overall, Sledge argued, love can cause blindness to reality. "If she plays him for a fool, he's the last one to know / Lovin' eyes can never see." Wright's organ proved essential to the track's effectiveness, its melancholy quality underscoring the narrator's anguish.
Despite the song's sad subject matter, "When A Man Loves A Woman" became a huge hit and an essential love song. Its timeless quality still inspires lovers today, with Sledge's honest vocals clearly registering with audiences almost 50 years after its release. It also stands as the first Souther soul record to reach number one on the charts. His distinctive voice and groundbreaking recording earned him a deserved place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, becoming an inductee in 2005.
In an interview with Blues & Soul, Sledge admitted that songs he wrote after his signature single were sequels to its theme of heartbreak. "All of my songs are the answer to that song. 'Cover Me.' 'Take Time To Know Her.' 'Warm and Tender Love.' 'Out Of Left Field.' 'Dark End Of The Street.' 'Tears Me Up.' 'My Special Prayer.' All points [sic] back to one song. 'When A Man Loves A Woman.' The Grand-daddy to all of my songs. The boss of all of my songs. I have great respect for that song. Always will."
Like "When A Man Loves A Woman," Sledge also inspired great respect for his vast talent and distinctive voice, and infused mid-sixties soul with a dose of Southern flavor. His contributions to soul and R&B will never be forgotten.