Percy Sledge: King of Slow Soul

Percy Sledge

Images courtesy of Atlantic Records/Amazon

Percy Sledge: King of Slow Soul
| published April 15, 2015 |

By Earl Perkins Thursday Review features editor

Percy Sledge grew up working the cotton fields near his hometown of Leighton, Alabama (not far from Muscle Shoals and the Tennessee River), eventually landing a job as a hospital orderly in nearby Sheffield. He sang in a local gospel choir and spent weekends playing with the Esquire Combos, a rhythm and blues band. Then a patient heard Sledge singing while working and recommended him to producer Quin Ivy at Atlantic Records, according to the Associated Press.

The soul singer, known for his 1966 classic hit "When a Man Loves a Woman," passed away Tuesday morning surrounded by family at his Baton Rouge home. Sledge, 73, died of natural causes shortly after midnight, according to East Baton Rouge Parish coroner Dr. William "Beau" Clark.

"When a Man Loves a Woman is one of the best songs I've ever heard," Rod Stewart said when he inducted Sledge into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. "Is anything possible when this man sings? It certainly is."

The King of Slow Soul, a sentimental crooner and one of the South’s first soul stars, Sledge could sing just about anything and give it incredible meaning.

“I was singing every style of music: the Beatles, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Motown, Sam Cooke, the Platters,” Sledge told the New York Times.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” reached No. 1 on the pop charts and sold more than a million copies in 1966, becoming Atlantic's first gold record. An album of the same name was then released, followed by three more studio records in the 1960s: “Warm and Tender Soul,” “The Percy Sledge Way” and “Take Time to Know Her.”

The 1960s and '70s were a special time musically for a small area in northwest Alabama. Sledge's blockbuster hit helped attract acts from around the world, and many came to Sheffield's southeast neighbor—Muscle Shoals. Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Alabama, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Otis Redding, Clarence Carter—they all beat a path to this wide spot in the road.

Sledge enthralled audiences worldwide for five decades, but never reached the heights of his first hit. But that's okay, when you consider he sang one of the world's greatest love songs. Ironically, Sledge never received royalties for "When a Man Loves a Woman," allowing early bandmates, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, who assisted with the arrangement, to be credited with writing the song.

“I hummed it (the melody) all my life, even when I was picking and chopping cotton in the fields,” said Sledge, 25 at the time. “Worst decision I ever made. But I am not at all bitter...It was God’s will for me to give it to them. But if I had my time again, I wouldn’t do it. Because of my children.”

In 1965 Sledge and his band played a gig at a University of Mississippi frat house, according to Rolling Stone magazine. Ivy was in the audience that night, and was impressed with the power of "When a Man Loves a Woman."

"If you ever think about cutting a record, come on by," Ivy said. "I love that melody.” Sledge tracked the song for Ivy, and his backing band included organist Spooner Oldham. Atlantic Records producer/executive Jerry Wexler, would release the song as Sledge's debut single in April 1966. Music critic Dave Marsh compared Sledge’s weighty, smooth wail to “the South itself, in all its bountiful, contradictory mystery.”

The song captured the power of love. The hurt, the loneliness... Sledge was inspired to write the song in 1965 after he was laid off from a construction job and his girlfriend left him for a modeling career. He called its composition "a miracle."

A funereal organ, the guitar runs, along with incredible horns and backing singers. Then came a bit of silence, and he finished you off with his plaintive voice.

"It was a perfect cut,'' Sledge told USA Today in 2010. "You only come by it once in a lifetime. Same with Brooke Benton and Rainy Night in Georgia. Elvis never got another song like Love Me Tender or Sinatra with Strangers in the Night. ... I think it (When a Man) has that staying power as long as people have love in their hearts and minds. That will be forever."

Sledge, whose wide, gap-toothed smile never changed, continued charting with songs like “I’ll Be Your Everything” well into the 1970s. “The Gospel of Percy Sledge,” his final album, was released in 2013.

Sledge was born in Leighton, Alabama, but spent much of his career living in Baton Rouge. Along with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, Sledge is also a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (1993) and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame (2007). In later years, Sledge was still in demand throughout the U.S., Europe and South Africa, prompted by his signature song appearing in movies including The Big ChillPlatoon and The Crying Game.

"When a Man Loves a Woman is an iconic song," said Johnny Palazzotto, a producer who worked with and interviewed Sledge. "I mean women, how many times do you think that's been played at weddings? You know it's a song that many brides have their husbands dance with them to."

David Hood, 71, one of the legendary "Swampers" studio musicians from Muscle Shoals, said he owed his career to Sledge and described him as the "nicest person you'd ever want to meet."

In the 2013 documentary "Muscle Shoals," Sledge recalled recording the song: "When I came into the studio, I was shaking like a leaf. I was scared." Then he added that it was the "same melody that I sang when I was out in the fields. I just wailed out in the woods and let the echo come back to me."

Related Thursday Review articles:

Muscle Shoals: Musical Ground Zero; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; July 9, 2014.

Joe Cocker Dies at 70; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 23, 2014.