BY RANDY LEWIS
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
The way soul singer Percy Sledge often told the story, his unexpected entry into pop music immortality came out of a Christmas party performance gone south.
Sledge, who had been working as a hospital orderly and was often asked by patients to sing for them, was invited to entertain at a holiday gathering not long after his girlfriend had dumped him and headed to Los Angeles to pursue a modeling career, taking one of his best friends along as her new beau.
He told the band working with him to hit a chord, and began pouring his heart out about the pain he was going through. “I had a couple of Jack Daniel’s, and my eyes were as big as hen eggs,” he told Rolling Stone in 1988. “I was feeling light as a feather, and I just wanted to speak my mind.”
No. 1 in 1966
He called the song that bubbled up “Why Did You Leave Me.” Quin Ivy, a record producer who happened to be at the party, suggested that Sledge come up with another set of lyrics for the memorable tune he just concocted so they might record it. A few weeks later, Sledge came back to Ivy, apologetic for not having anything to show for his efforts, explaining, “When a man loves a woman, he can’t think about anything else.”
Ivy persuaded Sledge to use it in revamping “Why Did You Leave Me” with help from organist Andrew Wright and bassist Cameron Lewis, members of the Esquires Combo cover band that Sledge often sang with on weekends.
Ivy borrowed a few session musicians from the Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with keyboard player Spooner Oldham providing the long, ethereal organ chords that sucked listeners into the ballad “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge’s first recording. It quickly rose to No. 1 not only on the R&B sales charts, but on the overall Billboard Hot 100 singles ranking in early 1966.
‘Holy love hymn’
It became a career-defining and -sustaining song for Sledge, who died at the age of 74 on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La., after a long fight with cancer.
“If Percy Sledge had only recorded ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ one of the greatest of all soul songs, he would have earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” states the Hall of Fame’s entry on Sledge, who was inducted in 2005. “No less an authority than (esteemed R&B producer and former Atlantic Records President) Jerry Wexler has called it ‘a transcendent moment … a holy love hymn.’ ”
Sledge did have other powerfully moving hits: “Warm and Tender Love,” “Take Time to Know Her” and “It Tears Me Up,” but none came close to the iconic status “When a Man Loves a Woman” achieved.
Percy Sledge was born Nov. 25, 1940, in Leighton, Ala., growing up in a rural farming community where he helped his parents doing farm chores, his labors motivating him early on to find a less strenuous way to make a living.
Married twice with 12 children, he is survived by his wife, Rosa, his children and grandchildren.