Born November 25, 1941
Died April 14, 2015
Obituary by John Barrett Jr. (“DJ Verve” on Birdland, Sundays 12-4 PM)
If you know anything about Percy Sledge, you know two things: he is unrelated to the girls of Sister Sledge, and you know him for his debut recording, “When a Man Loves a Woman.” He had several other hits and continued to tour and record through the rest of his life, but it was this song that defined him. Considering the tune’s status among soul ballads, that is not bad thing.
As one Facebook post put it, it is better to peak early than not to peak at all. Mr. Sledge’s peak was lofty indeed, and the permanence of his song is indisputable. If “When a Man Loves a Woman” can survive a Michael Bolton cover version, it can survive anything.
Percy Sledge was born in a small Alabama town, and worked as a hospital orderly while singing on weekends with his group The Esquires. One of these barroom performances, in 1965, benefited greatly from a personal tragedy: his girlfriend had left him to pursue a modeling career. Telling his band to lay down a slow groove, Percy improvised a lyric of lost love that he called “Why Did You Leave Me?” That might have been the whole story had it not been for the ambitious disc jockey seated on a nearby barstool.
The DJ in question was Quin Ivy; beyond his broadcasting duties he wrote songs and operated a small recording studio. Ivy liked Sledge’s voice and liked “Why Did You Leave Me?”, but he thought the tune needed refining. Two members of The Esquires, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, modified the tune until Ivy was satisfied; now named “When a Man Loves a Woman”, it was almost a different song and Percy didn’t get a writer’s credit on his greatest hit.
The recording was done at night at Quin Ivy’s tiny studio in Sheffield, Alabama, but not with Percy’s regular band. Instead of The Esquires, Ivy used some studio musicians from nearby Florence, including Spooner Oldham on organ and Roger Hawkins on drums. In later years this group would play behind a variety of acts from Cher to Aretha Franklin, and become known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. A few days later horns were added, local players to came to the studio after a bar gig, drunk and out of tune.
When someone suggested Quin take the tune to Atlantic Records they complained about the horns and paid for a new session with the Memphis Horns being brought down from Stax Records. Percy rerecorded the tune, the new session was very expensive and in the end Atlantic released the earlier take, drunk horns and all. It went straight to #1, proving you can do it right the first time.
Percy Sledge reached the R&B Top Forty several more times in the following years, including “Take Time to Know Her” and “It Tears Me Up.” A later hit of his, 1974′s “I’ll Be Your Everything”, achieved later notoriety when its songwriter George Soule noticed the similarity to Tommy Page’s hit “I’ll Be Your Everything” and took sued Page over it. Percy Sledge had a long and distinguished career, but whatever else he did will always be outshone by the brilliance of his earliest song.
This article owes a major debt to Peter Guralnick’s book Sweet Soul Music, from which I learned much of material recounted above.