Rhythm and blues singer, songwriter
Achieved Local Popularity Early
Percy Sledge’s best-known hit, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” was first released in 1966 but continued to keep the soul performer in the headlines a quarter of a century later. The classic single, which was the first soul recording to reach Number One on the pop charts, became his most successful release. In 1987 its appearance on the soundtrack of Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War, revived both the song and Sledge’s career for a new generation of listeners. Four years later its impassioned lyrics were sung by Top 40 singer Michael Bolton, and “When a Man Loves a Woman” again soared to the top of the charts. Bolton earned a Grammy Award for his version but failed to mention Sledge in his acceptance speech at the cermony; Bolton took heat for his oversight from those who considered recognition for Sledge as a passionate soul vocalist long overdue.
Another recording by Sledge became mired in controversy in 1992 when the teen singing group New Kids on the Block appeared in court to answer charges that a 1990 Number One single they co-wrote for Tommy Page, Til Be Your Everything,” was remarkably similar in parts to Sledge’s 1974 hit of the same name. Sledge, however, did not allow all of the negative press surrounding his early work to stop him from releasing Blue Night, a comeback album on a French record label, in 1994. The album was noted for its contributions from a host of guest musicians, including rhythm and blues singer Bobby Womack and former Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor.
Achieved Local Popularity Early
Sledge was born on November 25, 1940, in the rural farming area of Leighton, Alabama. As a child he helped his family with farming chores, and the backbreaking work convinced Sledge to dream of a less arduous way of earning a living. He began singing in local bands when still a teenager, and at the age of 20 joined a group called the Esquires Combo. The act—known in the area for its covers of songs by the Beatles and Smokey Robinson—became enormously popular in both Alabama and Mississippi and could often be found playing on college campuses in the early 1960s. Yet Sledge was still holding down a day job as a hospital orderly at Colbert County Hospital near Leighton and was barely making ends meet. He also performed with the choir at the local Gallillee Baptist Church.
In 1965 Sledge’s former music teacher invited him to perform at a Christmas party. The $50 fee helped Sledge entice his friends, bass player Cameron Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, to join him. At the time, Sledge was depressed about a woman with whom he
For the Record …
Born November 25, 1940, in Leighton, AL; married; wife’s name, Rosie.
Worked as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital, near Leighton, AL, in the early 1960s; began singing career with the Esquires Combo, Muscle Shoals, AL; launched solo career with single “When a Man Loves a Woman,” 1966; signed with Capricorn Records, 1974; released comeback album, Blue Night, Sky Ranch Records, 1994.
Awards: “When a Man Loves a Woman” named one of the “best 100 singles of the last 25 years” by Rolling Stone magazine, 1988; first recipient of Career Achievement Award, R&B Foundation, 1989; five gold records and two platinum records.
Addresses: Home —Baton Rouge, LA. Management — Artists International Management Inc., 9850 Sandalfoot Blvd., Suite 458, Boca Raton, FL 33428. Record company —Virgin, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
had been romantically involved, thinking she was dating someone else. “I had a couple of Jack Daniels, and my eyes were as big as hen eggs. I was feeling light as a feather, and I just wanted to speak my mind,” Sledge recounted in Rolling Stone in 1988. As he sang, he began pouring out the heart-wrenching lyrics to a track he called “Why Did You Leave Me.” Later, in a better mood, he polished the song into “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
A friend convinced Sledge to contact Quin lvy, a record-store owner and producer in Sheffield, Alabama. Ivy had been a disc jockey in Memphis, knew his way around the music business, and owned a recording studio. Inside Ivy’s Tune Town record store, Ivy asked Sledge to sing for him on the spot, and Sledge obliged. Shortly thereafter, Sledge found himself in a recording studio for the first time in his life.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” was cut early in 1966 in Ivy’s Quinvy Recording Studio with the help of musicians borrowed from another Alabama recording enterprise, Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals. Ivy and Marlin Greene produced the cut, with Greene doubling as the session’s guitar player. Other local musicians helping out in the studio were Junior Lowe on bass, Spooner Oldham on organ, Roger Hawkins on drums, and Jimmy Johnson on lead guitar. Reportedly, Hall called Atlantic Records President Jerry Wexler and told him about the session and its electrifying result; Wexler was sent a tape and soon Atlantic had signed Sledge to a contract. Sledge also needed a manager, and a professional by the name of Phil Walden, who had worked with Otis Redding, stepped into the picture. Unfortunately, Sledge’s new manager could not rectify the singer’s regrettable decision to give songwriting credit to Lewis and Wright.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” made its first appearance on the charts on April 9, 1966, and by the end of May was the Number One song in the United States. Sledge’s single was also a hit overseas. A full-length album of the same name was released, and within a few years Sledge had become an enormously popular soul singer.
Although none of his subsequent records achieved the success of his first, Sledge’s songs were nonetheless modest hits. Atlantic released “Warm and Tender Love” in July of 1966, and the song reached Number 17; “It Tears Me Up” debuted in October of the same year. “Baby, Help Me” and “Out of Left Field” were both released in early 1967, followed by four more throughout the year. “Take Time to Know Her” became Sledge’s best-selling single after “When a Man Loves a Woman,” reaching Number 11 after its release in March of 1968. The decade closed with three more efforts by Sledge— “Sudden Stop,” “My Special Prayer,” and “Any Day Now”—that made respectable showings on the soul charts.
Songs Reached Across Barriers
Sledge’s success catapulted him onto a world stage. Major concert tours helped spark record sales and bring new audiences to Sledge’s tunes and no-holds-barred vocal delivery. In the summer of 1970 the singer traveled to South Africa to give performances and make a concert film entitled Soul Africa. Many black performers had been officially boycotting the country since 1965 because of its racist policies of apartheid, and at the time Sledge was criticized for traveling and performing there. Controversy marked his stay.
He had been booked to perform only for black crowds at the specific directive of the South African government, but during his first shows, white teenagers in fez hats and black makeup attempted to gain entry. Finally, the authorities allowed Sledge and his management to schedule some performances for white audiences during his tour. In a 1971 interview with Orde Coombs for the New York Times, the singer defended his tour against critics: “I went to entertain all those people who buy my records, the people who keep me in bread.”
In the early 1970s Sledge’s career lost some of its early momentum. His last recorded single for Atlantic was “Sunshine,” released in 1973. The next year Sledge signed with Capricorn Records, a label headed by his manager, Phil Walden. In November of 1974 Sledge released “’ll Be Your Everything,” a song that reached Number 15 on the soul charts but was also his last to place in the Top 100 for over a decade. In 1992 the single would became the centerpiece of a legal battle in U.S. District Court in New York. It had been written for Sledge by George Soule, and the company that had purchased its copyright charged that pop performer Tommy Page, along with two members of the pop group New Kids on the Block, had lifted parts of the melody of the original Sledge hit. All three composers claimed never to have heard either the Sledge song or subsequent remakes by other performers. A jury acquitted the defendants based on insufficient evidence.
A Song and a Career Reborn
The revival of Sledge’s performing career began in 1987 when director Oliver Stone selected “When a Man Loves a Woman” for the soundtrack of his Vietnam Warera film, Platoon. The song was also re-released as a single overseas and reached Number Two on Billboard magazine’s Hits of the World chart. Sledge received further recognition in 1987 by performing on the NBC television program Saturday Night Live.
In 1989 Sledge became the first recipient of the R&B Foundation’s Career Achievement Award. The singer was also in the news in early 1992 when popular ballad crooner Michael Bolton, often criticized for straining to emulate the vocal styles of African American singers, won a Grammy Award for his cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Bolton, in his elation over the award, never once mentioned the man who originally made the song famous. Bolton was pilloried in the press for the oversight and made a point to express gratitude to Sledge in subsequent interviews as well as in a letter to him. Bolton wrote, “I have always felt that your performance was the element that made a great song a truly classic record and a standard.”
In the early 1990s Sledge signed a three-record deal with a new label, and his first full-length album since the early 1970s was released in 1994. Entitled Blue Night, the album earned praise from the man who helped propel Sledge to his early success, Jerry Wexler. Wexler wrote the liner notes to the comeback album, which appeared on France’s Sky Ranch Records. The label is devoted to releasing recordings by American rhythm and blues artists; it entered into a distribution deal with Virgin Records for Blue Night.
Sledge recorded Blue Night in a Los Angeles studio, a first for him, and was joined by a host of other performers for the session. Contemporary rhythm-and-blues singer Bobby Womack and former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor were guest musicians, and Bee Gees Barry and Robin Gibb and Swedish singer Mikael Rickfors—former Hollies vocalist—also contributed tracks. In addition, Blue Night contains Sledge and Rickfors’s duet on a cover of “I Wish It Would Rain,” originally recorded by the Temptations.
A major concert tour throughout Europe was scheduled to coincide with Blue Night’s release, but plans were changed when Sledge pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion that summer. He failed to report $260,000 in income earned between 1987 and 1989 and was sentenced to serve six months in a halfway house. Acknowledging that he could have faced 15 years in prison, Sledge commented at his sentencing, “Thank you, Jesus. I appreciate what the court has done for me.” Sledge’s fans around the world were also grateful.
Singles; on Atlantic, except where noted
“When a Man Loves a Woman,” 1966.
“Warm and Tender Love,” 1966.
“It Tears Me Up,” 1966.
“Baby, Help Me,” 1967.
“Out of Left Field,” 1967.
“Love Me Tender,” 1967.
“What Am I Living For,” 1967.
“Just out of Reach,” 1967.
“Cover Me,” 1967.
“Take Time to Know Her,” 1968.
“Sudden Stop,” 1968.
“My Special Prayer,” 1969.
“Any Day Now,” 1969.
“’ll Be Your Everything,” Capricorn, 1974.
When a Man Loves a Woman, Atlantic, 1966.
When a Man Loves a Woman (The Ultimate Collection), Atlantic, 1987.
It Tears Me Up: The Best of Percy Sledge, Rhino, 1992. Blue Night, Sky Ranch/virgin, 1994.
Best of Percy Sledge, Atlantic.
Bronson, Fred, Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard Publications, 1985.
Murrells, Joseph, compiler, The Book of Golden Discs: The Records That Sold a Million, Barrie and Jenkins Ltd., 1978.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s, 1974.
Billboard, April 11,1987; April 18,1987; June 13,1992: June 27, 1992; August 27, 1994; April 22, 1995.
Detroit Free Press, July 2, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, June 2, 1995.
New York Times, June 27, 1971.
People, April 25, 1994.
Rolling Stone, September 8, 1988.
USA Today, August 18, 1988.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Artists International Management Inc., 1995.
Sledge, Percy 1940–
Percy Sledge 1940–
Strong Career Built on Past Fante
Legendary soul singer Percy Sledge’s career is often reduced to just one song. Sledge’s 1966 hit, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” carried the singer to stardom, and has kept him in the limelight ever since. “When a Man Loves a Woman” remains one of the most heavily played songs on the radio—estimates of its airplays range around five million. About 50 other artists have recorded their own versions of the ballad, and the song earned a Grammy award for pop crooner Michael Bolton in 1992. Though he enjoyed a number of lesser hits, including “Cover Me,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Warm and Tender Love,” “Out of Left Field,” “Take Time to Know Her,” “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms),” and “I’ll Be Your Everything,” “When a Man Loves a Woman” stands as the lone hit in Sledge’s repertoire. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times declared that Sledge sings the song “with such passion and conviction that the single stands as one of the defining records in American soul music.”
Sledge was born on November 25, 1940 (some sources say 1941), in Leighton, Alabama. Like many successful soul singers, he grew up singing in church with his mother. He also was raised on a steady diet of country music. “The only radio station we got [in rural Alabama] was country music,” Sledge said in a 1998 interview with 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.” Sledge absorbed the heartbreak of country music legends like Hank Williams, Jimmy Reed, and Marty Rob-bins, and it eventually influenced his own soulful style.
Wrote and Sang Hit Single
After singing in church and in bar bands, Sledge teamed up with record producers Quin Ivy and Marlin Greene in Sheffield, Alabama. Sledge was working as an orderly in a Sheffield hospital when he met Ivy. Sledge used to hum the bars of “When a Man Loves a Woman” while picking and chopping cotton near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, according to Madelyn Rosenberg of Virginia’s Roanoke Times. The song was released on the Atlantic record label in 1966. Though Sledge helped write the song, which was originally titled “Why Did You Leave Me?,” he gave writing credit to Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, who were members of Sledge’s five-man band, called the Esquires. When he agreed to give up the writing credit, Sledge
At a Glance…
Born on November 25, 1940, in Leighton, AL; married Rosa; 12 children.
Career: Singer, 1966-.
Awards: “When a Man Loves a Woman” named one of the “Best 100 Singles of the Last 25 Years” by Rolling Stone magazine, 1988; first recipient of Career Achievement Award, R&B Foundation, 1989; Most-Performed Song of the Year award, BMI, 1993; five gold records and two platinum records.
Addresses: Agent— Artists International Management Inc., 9850 Sandalfoot Blvd., Suite 458, Boca Raton, FL 33428. Record company—Virgin, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
later admitted, he had no idea how successful the song would be. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was not even Sledge’s favorite song on his debut album. “I never did think the song would be anything,” he told the Roanoke Times. “It was just something I made up.”
The song went straight to number one on the charts, though it only remained there for two weeks. While Sledge has estimated that he has sung “When a Man Loves a Woman” thousands of times since he first recorded it, he admits that the original recording is timeless. “It will be forever, it’s a masterpiece,” Sledge said in an interview with the Australian Sunday Times. “It’ll never be cut like that again. Not me, not anybody, will sing it like that again. Everything was perfect in that song.” He also claims to never tire of singing the ballad after more than three decades. “It’s a beautiful song,” Sledge told the Los Angeles Daily News. “I could never get sick of it.”
The single launched Sledge’s career and sent him on his first national tour. Legend has it that, when he returned home after that first tour, Sledge checked into the hospital where he had worked so that his former coworkers could wait on him hand and foot. Two years after the song’s release, Sledge sat in an Atlanta diner with blues legend B.B. King. Sledge told King that he would be happy if he could stretch his success out for another five years. According to Sledge in the Australian Sunday Times, King replied, “With the song you’ve got you’re gonna last a lot longer than I have, because that song is going to keep going forever.”
Strong Career Built on Past Fante
King was absolutely right. Though Sledge’s career peaked with “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and he never recaptured that level of popular success, he was able to cull together a career of live concert appearances and greatest hits albums that satisfied his fans’ desire to walk down memory lane. The song was such a true hit, and though Sledge could ably sing a host of hits by other soul artists, “When a Man Loves a Woman” anchors his live shows. His fans are older now, but the song has stood the test of time. “They’re grown up now with children and they never forgot me,” Sledge told the Roanoke Times. “That makes me feel great. I know I did something and I thank God for that. I even cry sometimes when I think about it.”
Though he released dozens of records of new material over the years, none of them was critically or popularly successful. He signed with the Capricorn record label in the mid-1970s and released the Top 20 hit “I’ll Be Your Everything.” The inclusion of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” on the soundtrack of Oliver Stone’s Academy Award-winning war film Platoon put the song back on the charts in 1987. It also enjoyed commercial airplay in a Levi’s commercial. In 1989, the R&B Foundation presented Sledge with one of its first Career Achievement Awards for his lifelong contribution to R&B. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
Blue Night, released in 1994, sparked another surge of renewed interest in the singer, and was lauded as the artist’s “comeback album.” London’s Guardian music critic Adam Sweeting described the album as “likeable,” and noted its “amazing cast” of guest musicians, which included Bobby Womack, Steve Cropper, and Mick Taylor, among others. London Independent critic Geoff Brown went a stretch further, writing that Blue Night was Sledge’s “first uniformly good record in over two decades,” noting the “bunch of sixties soul staples” featured on the album.
After a 1996 concert in London, Independent Sunday music critic Nicholas Barber wrote that Sledge’s voice was “showing its age” Although it was “certainly not the nimble, expressive instrument” of Sledge’s heyday, Barber continued, “it expands throughout the evening, and reveals subtleties that are more than a match for most other singers’ voices—if not for his former self.” During the show, which was the first of a six-night residency at London’s Jazz Café, Sledge mostly sang from the repertoires of other soul legends, and the show suffered from a series of frustrating stops and starts by Sledge and his young band. “Sledge knows his limitations, and restricts himself almost entirely to tried and tested, steady, hymnal classics,” according to Barber. He dedicated a revue of popular hits to Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Temptations, and Ben E. King, and then proceeded to croon their signature songs, including “My Girl,” “At the Dark End of the Street,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “Stand By Me,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay.” But on his own signature song, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge still shines. “On that,” Barber wrote, “he hits the notes with such power, authority, and accuracy that they are left in no fit state to be sung by anyone else again.” Sledge moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1996, and resides there with his wife, Rosa. He has 12 children and 14 grandchildren.
When a Man Loves a Woman, Atlantic, 1966.
“Warm and Tender Love,” Atlantic, 1966.
“It Tears Me Up,” Atlantic, 1966.
“Out of Left Field,” Atlantic, 1967.
“Just Out of Reach,” Atlantic, 1967.
“Cover Me,” Atlantic, 1967.
“Take Time to Know Her,” Atlantic, 1968.
“I’ll Be Your Everything,” Capricorn, 1974.
When a Man Loves a Woman (The Ultimate Collection), Atlantic, 1987.
It Tears Me Up: The Best of Percy Sledge, Rhino, 1992.
Blue Night, Sky Ranch/Virgin, 1994.
Best of Percy Sledge, Atlantic.
Daily News (Los Angeles), May 30, 1995, p. L3.
Guardian (London, England), January 16, 1996, p. 2.
Independent (London, England), January 19, 1996, p. 10.
Independent Sunday (London, England), January 21, 1996, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1998, p. 6.
Roanoke Times (Virginia), October 22, 1999, p. 1.
Sunday Times (Perth, Australia), March 30, 2003, p. S7.
Times (London, England), August 28, 1997, p. 32.
Washington Post, August 18, 2000, p. WW13.
“Percy Sledge,” Alabama Hall of Fame, www.alamhof.org/sledgep.htm (February 19, 2003).
“Percy Sledge,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (February 19, 2003).
“Percy Sledge,” Artist Direct, http://imusic.artistdirect.com/showcase/urban/percysledge.html (February 19, 2003).
“Percy Sledge,” VH1, www.vh1.com (February 19, 2003).
Sledge, Percy , soul singer who earned the first gold record for Atlantic records; b. Leighton, Ala., Nov. 25, 1940. Percy Sledge’s first record was undoubtedly his most famous. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” wrought with soul, passion, and emotion, topped the pop charts for two weeks in 1966, sent four weeks atop the R&B charts, and became the first gold record on the walls of Atlantic records. In the process, Sledge helped establish the entire Muscle Shoals, Ala. music scene.
In the early 1960s, Sledge was working on the family farm and as a hospital orderly by day; at night, he sang in a gospel group at the Galilee Baptist Church and with the Esquires, a popular local act in Ala. Ala. music business impresario Quinn Ivy was impressed by Sledge’s voice and took him into his studio. Ivy released “When a Man Loves a Woman” independently, then licensed the song to Atlantic records, which ultimately bought Sledge’s contract. Over the course of 1966, he put out two more chart singles, “Warm and Tender Love” (#17) and “It Tears Me Up” (#20). However, in 1967, his “Love Me Tender” barely scraped into the Top 40, and in 1968, he had his last pop hit, “Take Time to Know Her,” which rose to # 11. After that, Sledge all but fell by the pop music wayside. He recorded for Atlantic for another six years without a great deal of success, moving to Capricorn records in the early 1970s. There he scored a minor R&B hit with “I’ll Be Your Everything.” He split most of the 1970s and 1980s between various day jobs and stints on the road.
In 1987 his version of “When a Man Loves a Woman” turned up as the soundtrack to a commercial for jeans and the soundtrack to the Oliver Stone film Platoon. This led to a minor revival that saw him appear on Saturday Night Live and other TV shows. In 1989 the R&B foundation made him one of their first Career Achievement winners. Michael Bolton revived “When a Man” again in 1991. Bolton won a Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male Grammy, but somehow managed to forget to acknowledge the original performer and writer of the song while accepting his award. However, the renewed visibility led to Sledge signing with Virgin’s Pointblank blues imprint. In 1994, he released Blue Light, his first new album in over 20 years. It featured Bobby Womack, Steve Cropper, and Mick Taylor. Four years later, he was recording for a small independent label, issuing the Wanted Again album.
Warm & Tender Soul (1966); When a Man Loves a Woman (1966); The Percy Sledge Way (1967); Take Time to Know Her (1968); Golden Voice of Soul (1974); I’ll Be Your Everything (1974); It Tears Me Up (1992); Percy Sledge (1994); Blue Light (1994); Wanted Again (1998).