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Percy Sledge, soul balladeer of ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ dies at 74

🕐 5 min read

Percy Sledge, the Alabama-born soul balladeer whose emotional, pleading style propelled “When a Man Loves a Woman” to the top of the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts in 1966 and made the song one of the defining soul records of all time, died April 14 at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was 74.

In early 2014, he began withdrawing from concerts after reportedly being diagnosed with liver cancer. His agent Steve Green confirmed the death.

Sledge, a 2005 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, possessed one of the most distinctive tenor voices in the Southern soul genre. With the ability to shift from a powerful shout to a softer, beseeching quaver, he gave each song an anguished delivery that suggested the lyrics — no matter how trite or cliched — conveyed matters of life and death.

His successful recordings, mostly produced in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, included “Take Time to Know Her,” “Warm and Tender Love” and “It Tears Me Up.” Sledge’s style was influenced as much by country music as it was by gospel and rhythm and blues, and he sometimes covered songs popularized by country performers such as Charlie Rich and Charlie Pride.

Writing in 1969, the British music critic Charlie Gillett said that Sledge “takes other people’s material at a tempo [so] slow you scarcely notice it’s moving at all, and creates atmospheres of searing despair that are hard to resist no matter how happy you are when you start listening.”

Sledge claimed to have co-written “When a Man Loves a Woman” — his first record and signature song — from hard experience.

As he told the story, he had worked as a former hospital orderly and performed on weekends with an Alabama band called the Esquires Combo. When his girlfriend left him to seek a modeling career in New Jersey — with his best friend — Sledge, overcome with emotion, made up a song about it on the spot at a gig.

Local record producer Quin Ivy offered to record the song, then titled “Why Did You Leave Me Baby?,” provided Sledge come up with better lyrics.

After several rewrites with bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright of the Esquires Combo, the song became “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a No. 1 hit on both the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts. The record was picked up by Atlantic Records, which signed Sledge with Ivy as his primary producer.

The ballad — which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame described as having “raised the bar for soul balladeering for all time” — was covered by Bette Midler in the soundtrack to the 1979 movie “The Rose” and by blue-eyed-soul singer Michael Bolton in 1991. It also served as the title song for a 1994 movie starring Meg Ryan and Andy García.

Ironically, given such lyrics as “if she’s bad, he can’t see it,” the song has also become a frequent first-dance request at weddings.

“What I did was tell a true part of my life, about a girl,” Sledge told writer Anthony Musso. “As to the words, ‘Why did you leave me baby,’ I turned it around to say ‘When a man loves a woman,’ all he would do for her and at the same time, I’m thinking that she’s going to leave me. I said that he’d even sleep out in the rain, give her his last dime and still, she’s going to leave me.”

After the song became a huge seller, Sledge said he regretted giving all the songwriting credit to Lewis and Wright, neither of whom played on the record.

The song’s arrangement — particularly Spooner Oldham’s funereal organ work — would influence another of the era’s enduring recordings, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and serve as the template for Sledge’s later ballads, several of which were written by Oldham and his songwriting partner, guitarist and pianist Dan Penn.

The market for Sledge’s somber brand of love songs waned with the advent of funk and disco in the mid-1970s, although he remained a consistent draw overseas and continued to play smaller clubs in the United States.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” was heard on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam War movie “Platoon” (1986) and was then re-released in Europe, where it became a hit for the second time.

In 1989, Sledge played at President George H.W. Bush’s inaugural because Republican Party Chairman Lee Atwater, a guitarist, was a fan. That same year, Sledge received one of the first lifetime achievement awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.

A 1994 Sledge album, “Blue Night,” with guest appearances from guitarists Steve Cropper of Booker T. and the MGs and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, was widely praised.

It was his first album — and only his second recording — after a nearly 20-year absence from the studios. That same year, Sledge pleaded guilty to tax evasion for failing to report more than $260,000 in income; he was given five years’ probation and ordered to pay more than $95,000 in back taxes and participate in a substance-abuse program.

Percy Tyrone Sledge was born in Leighton, Alabama, on Nov. 25, 1940. He joined an a cappella doo-wop group at 15 but said his favorite singers were country performers such as Hank Williams, Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins.

“The only radio station we got [in rural Alabama] was country music,” Sledge told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s all I knew. We didn’t hear rock ‘n’ roll but for about 15 minutes real late at night.”

Survivors include his wife, the former Rosa Singleton, and 12 children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

As he once told the music publication Mojo, Sledge was recovering from an appendix operation when he first heard himself on the radio. His mother could hardly believe it.

“I was still under the ether, my mom was by the bed, and she said, ‘Son, wake up, they just called to say the radio is fixed to play your record.’ I was still under that medicine, and it sounded like it was coming out of heaven, like floating clouds and stars.”

“So when I finally woke up, my mom said, ‘Son, they played your record, and you know what? You can sing, can’t you? Hahaha! You can sing.’ “

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