RIP: Percy Sledge

Posted April 15, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

“When a Man Loves a Woman” singer dies at the age of 73

Alabama born Percy Sledge rose to fame on the backs of a 1966 soulful power ballad, one that shot to number one on the pop and R&B charts.  The soul singer — a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee — died at the age of 73 on April 14. According to his agent, he passed away at his home in Baton Rogue, La. of cancer.

The story surrounding how “When a Man Loves a Woman” came into existence is still a mystery to most biographers. Sledge asserts that he co-authored the song, although he has no songwriting credit on the song’s publishing. He stated that the song’s inspiration comes from a true story involving  an ex-girlfriend that left him to pursue a modeling career. The song went through a few title changes and was mostly assembled by members of his backing band; bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright. After initially recording the track a Rick Hall’s FAME Studios, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler turned down the song for a number of reasons. The legendary Atlantic producer didn’t believe in the song. He also suggested a re-recording since the horns parts were out of tune.

After re-recording it at nearby Norala Studios in February 1966, the single was submitted to Atlantic and released later in the spring. A few members of the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section accompanied Sledge on the track, including drummer Roger Hawkins and organist Spooner Oldham — the latter famous for playing on Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”

After his initial success from the hit single, Sledge continued to record music for Atlantic Records all the way until 1970, but he never seemed to reach the kind of notoriety he once acquired. He continued to perform and record in his latter days. His most recently release was 2013’s The Gospel of Percy Sledge.

In 2014, FAME Studios founder Rick Hall spoke with Larry King about how the song landed on Atlantic’s desk.

“[I] called me one time…and he said, ‘Well, I’m having a party at my house, Rick, and I hope this is important I don’t have time for that…bullshit. And so I said, ‘Well, you told me if I found a hit record to call you and send it to you. And I found a number one record, Jerry.’ He said, ‘Really? That’s big, Rick.’ So he said, ‘Send it to me.’ So I sent it to him and he called me back and said, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s a hit.’ And I said, ‘You’re wrong, Jerry, because it’s a number one record worldwide.’ And he said, ‘Man, that’s pretty big. He said, ‘Are you sure.’ And I said, ‘I’m positive. I bet my life on it. Not number two, not number three, but number one.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you feel that strong about it, I want to make a deal with the artist and we’re gonna put it out.’ It was number one, and has been number one for years.”

The song has been covered by a number of artists, including Bette Midler, Esther Smith and most famously by Michael Bolton, where his 1991 Grammy-award winning version peaked at number one on the pop and AC charts.

Critics worldwide have proclaimed the song as one of the greatest songs of the classic rock and roll era. It was listed at number 53 on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Songs of All Time.



About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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