Percy Sledge, who died Tuesday at the age of 74, was a singer who became indelibly associated with his first hit, When a Man Loves a Woman, a song that became not only a huge hit, but one of the all-time classics of soul music.
It was the first million-selling record for Atlantic Records, and reached Number One in the Billboard Hot 100 (and the R&B) chart in 1966 before becoming an international hit. On the other side of the Atlantic, it was not only a Top 5 hit on release but, rather unexpectedly, reached the Number 2 slot in the U.K. charts 21 years later, after being featured in a commercial. In 1991, it returned to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 when it was recorded by Michael Bolton.
When a Man Loves a Woman, described by Rod Stewart as one of the greatest songs he had ever heard, owed its power to Sledge’s soaring, unrestrained vocals.
There were, however, competing accounts of its composition. Sledge assigned the copyright to Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, fellow members of the Esquires Combo, something that he later (understandably enough) regarded as “the worst decision I ever made.” Sledge himself gave differing accounts, suggesting variously that he had sung over a slow blues improvised by the pair, or that he had adapted an earlier song he had written, entitled Why Did You Leave Me Baby at the suggestion of the producer Quin Ivy.
In the event, Lewis and Wright did not even play on the record, which instead brought in sidesmen from the Fame studio in Muscle Shoals—in fact, the first version of the song was recorded there, but the single released was re-recorded at Ivy’s own studios.
In the immediate aftermath of his debut hit, Sledge worked assiduously, turning out four albums and a dozen singles in only two years. Warm and Tender Love and It Tears Me Up (both 1966) did fairly well, making the Top 20, but his other recordings tended to peak in the lower reaches of the Hot 100.
His biggest hit after When a Man Loves a Woman was Take Time to Know Her, which reached Number 11 in 1968. He last troubled the charts in 1973, with Sunshine and with the following year’s I’ll Be Your Everything. His long suit, judging by the majority of his songs, was in asking women who had left him to come back.
But the impact of his first and biggest smash was so considerable that Sledge never had to worry overmuch about his career. His soulful voice, perfectly showcased by the song, brought comparison with figures such as Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Ben E. King and, although he did not enjoy the same sales success as other soul singers with his later singles, he remained a prominent figure in the genre until fashions shifted in the mid-1970s.
Even after the rise of disco, punk and New Wave, Sledge was able to continue working, in part because of his willingness to tour internationally. In 1969, he had sold out a tour of South Africa, and through the 1970s and 1980s he continued to attract audiences there, in the United Kingdom and in Germany and the Netherlands, where he was particularly popular.
Percy Tyrone Sledge was born in Leighton, Alabama on Nov. 25, 1940, the son of a sharecropper, who died while Percy was an infant. He grew up singing in the church choir, but his chief musical influences were white country stars, since black pop music received no radio airplay at the time.
From his early teens, Sledge worked at a series of menial agricultural jobs, but after becoming a father and getting married, he got a more secure post as a hospital orderly in Colbert County. He had just moved from that post to a job with a chemical company when he received an invitation to sing with the Esquires Combo.
Sledge was at first reluctant, because he had never sung with a band, and had no musical ambitions (as a child, he dreamt of being a baseball player). Then he was offered $50 for the gig. “What time do I need to get there?” he asked.
Holding on to his day job, Sledge began to gig with the band around local clubs and colleges, singing a selection of soul and mainstream pop songs, until in 1965, they attracted Ivy’s attention. After Sledge took his advice to use “When a man loves a woman, he can’t keep his mind on nothing else”—a reply he had given Ivy when asked how the songwriting was going—as lyrics, the track was cut and released by Ivy’s label. It was quickly licensed to Atlantic, who bought out his contract and where he remained until 1974.
He moved to Capricorn records that year to release the album I’ll Be Your Everything. It, and the single of the same name, were his last significant releases for almost 20 years. But Sledge was not quite in the wilderness; his international touring, which had begun with U.S. Army bases in Germany, broadened across Europe and Africa. By the early 1980s, he was no longer seen as outmoded, but as a classic soul singer; When a Man Loves a Woman began to feature on film soundtracks, such as The Big Chill (1983) and Platoon (1986) and was rereleased in the U.K. after a celebrated Levi’s advertisement. A new compilation album followed.
In 1989, Sledge played at George H.W. Bush’s inaugural and received a lifetime achievement award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Blue Night (1994) showcased collaborations with other artists and won plaudits; in 2005 he was inaugurated in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A four-disc retrospective was released in 2010, and the following year he recorded the single I’m Your Puppet and toured with the veteran British pop star Sir Cliff Richard. His final record was The Gospel of Percy Sledge (2013).
He underwent surgery for liver cancer last year, and died of the disease on April 14. Percy Sledge is survived by his second wife Rosa, and by 12 children.