Blame it all on a woman. Or, since it turned out to be such a success, give her credit. At any rate, had a woman not broken up with Percy Sledge, he would never have become such a singing success. Sledge had been laid off from a construction job when his girlfriend left him to pursue a modeling career. Sledge said, “I had a couple of Jack Daniels, and my eyes were as big as hen eggs. I was feeling light as a feather, and I just wanted to speak my mind.”
In the original version, the song was called “Why Did You Leave Me?” Then Sledge revised the song into “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Through some contacts in the music business, Sledge was able to sing the song to Quin Ivy, who was a disk jockey and the owner of a recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. As soon as some musicians could be gathered up, the song was recorded and Atlantic Records picked it up.
The song first hit the charts on April 9, 1966, and was a number one hit shortly after that. It would be the defining song of Percy Sledge’s career. In 1987, the song reappeared when it was used on the soundtrack of the Vietnam War movie Platoon, and once again it climbed high on the charts.
Many other singers, with styles ranging from soul to pop to R & B to country, covered the song as well. In 1991 Michael Bolton won a Grammy for his rendition of the song. But it always came down to being Percy Sledge’s song. It was the emotional intensity of his recording, along with the dominance of the organ setting the mood. The sheer vocal power of Sledge’s voice conveys the depth of the song. This same song was able to express the joy of a man in love with a woman and the pain that love can inflict.
Sledge says a man will sleep out in the rain if his woman says that’s the way it ought to be. Whether it is the man waiting patiently while his girl shops, or his paying for something special she wants, or his painting a room because she wants a different color, men know that the song rings true. Sleeping out in the rain would, in fact, be easier than some of what men do for their women.
But the song’s emphasis is not the cost of love, or the sacrifices a man makes, but rather the worth of his woman. The song is a hymn to love, and so it has been sung at weddings. For people unfamiliar with what is called “soul music,” this song is a good introduction to the whole genre.
Sledge said, “It was the same melody that I sang when I was out in the fields.” That was something Sledge knew quite well. Born in Leighton, Alabama, in 1940, Sledge had grown up on a farm and had worked in the cotton fields. He then worked as a hospital orderly and started singing with a rhythm and blues band called the Esquires on weekends. Neither job provided much of a living.
It was his break with his signature song that changed everything. There would be other hits along the way, up until 1974. Some of the most successful were “Take Time to Know Her,” “It Tears Me Up Inside,” and “Out of Left Field.” Repeatedly, when Sledge’s singing career would sag, “When a Man Loves a Woman” would pop up again in a movie, in a commercial, or in England, and Sledge’s records would again get attention.
Percy Sledge had a life typical of many Southern artists. He knew the hardships of farm life, and that is what caused him to look for a better way to make a living. And he knew music. As a child, he sang in the choir at the Galilee Baptist Church. The influence of church singing stayed with him. The emotion of Negro spirituals was carried over into his other songs. One of the last records he made was a gospel album called Gospel of Percy Sledge.
Even though Sledge is classified as a soul singer, like most Southerners, he identified with the native musical culture of the South. In time, record producers would pitch country music toward white audiences and soul and blues to black audiences. But before that, there was an integration to Southern music. Sledge recorded a country album called Percy Sledge Sings Country that demonstrated his connection to country music. It was the quality of feeling, the power of the lyrics, and the musical experience rather than some external label that defined the music to Southern singers of all races.
Thanks to Thomas Edison, singers have obtained a type of immortality. Through the centuries, we have the writings, compositions, and paintings of great artists, but the voices of singers are gone. Crowds flocked to see and hear Jenny Lind, known as “the Swedish Nightingale,” in the 1800’s, but we have only descriptions of her singing. We have Stephen Foster’s folk songs but no recordings of how he sang them. But now when we lose a great voice, we really haven’t lost them.
Hank Williams and Ray Charles, Patsy Cline and Louis Armstrong are all gone, but they are still with us. The songs still live, and in a sense, so do the singers. Whether it is an old vinyl record, a compact disk, or a download saved onto an MP3 player, the voices of those who are dead still live.
All of that is a consolation since we lost Percy Sledge on April 14, 2015. He died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after a year of battling liver cancer. But since that day, fans have logged in to YouTube and other sources to hear him sing. Those who have CD’s, records, and even old cassette tape recordings have pulled them out to hear Percy Sledge one more time.
Some people have discovered him for the first time because of news of his death. Perhaps they had heard his singing without knowing who he was, or perhaps they have heard covers of his songs. Whatever the case, Percy Sledge has left this world, but he bequeathed a voice and emotion for all to hear.
Hear Percy Sledge and Michael Bolton Sing “When a Man Loves a Woman” in Concert Together