Soul singer Percy Sledge passed away yesterday at the age of seventy-four while in hospice care in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is survived by his wife of thirty-five years and twelve children, a few of who became singers themselves. He is remembered in surely all obituaries for his 1966 ballad, “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Even before the song became Hollywood shorthand in the era of major label mining for licensing gold, Sledge’s hit was the subject of a ‘response song’ by Esther Phillips, also recorded for Atlantic. We posted her song, “When A Woman Loves A Man,” in Part II of our series of sequel songs here. That post also included a riotous glimpse at the riotous variety of amateur video you’ll find on Youtube of people performing “When A Man Loves a Woman” at wedding receptions. There are pages of performances of varying levels of awkwardness when you search for the song on Youtube with the word “wedding” added — it brings out something in people like no other song.
The song was recorded at the legendary FAME Studio, subject of the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals. Its authorship is disputed between Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright (credited on the single) and the singer, who says he wrote the original tune as “Why Did You Leave Me?” after a breakup. The disagreement is made all the more amusing since the song is based on a melody by Bach which was some two hundred and sixty years old at the time — In fact, Bach’s Air on the G String was one of the first of his pieces to find its way onto a record, having been recorded by Russian cellist Aleksandr Verzhbilovich in 1903. The lovely melody, so called because it is played solely on the G string, is second only to Pachabel’s Canon in D as the most eye-rollingly boring wedding music in the world. It also familiar as the basis of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which was released a few years after “When A Man Loves a Woman.”
The organist who played the slow descending riff was Spooner Oldham, who was also a successful songwriter along with Dan Penn. They wrote many successful songs together, including one of Sledge’s later hits, “It Tears me Up.” The horns are not quite in key but it doesn’t seem to matter. “When A Man Loves A Woman” was one of the earliest records to capture the unique quality of the FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Sledge’s success continued through the sixties, and he enjoyed a surprise revival after his song became a huge hit in England because it was used in a blue jeans commercial. In the 90s he released a blues album which featured Steve Cropper and Bobby Womack and received rave reviews. He recorded his last album, The Gospel of Percy Sledge, just two years ago.
Its no surprise, however, that obituaries today begin and end with his first single, which Atlantic Records released almost exactly forty-nine years ago on April 16, 1966. “When A Man Loves a Woman” is a beautiful song, but you’ve probably heard it plenty of times (and if you clicked on the Youtube link above you’ve likely heard it too many times!) — we thought we’d close today with a different song.
Percy Sledge’s recording of “Any Day Now,” a Bacharach tune (co-written with Bob Hilliard) came a couple years after “When A Man Loves A Woman,” but features his familiar full-throated delivery. It’s our favorite version of the popular song, and seems like a fitting farewell for the soul legend who sang it.