Percy Sledge - Biography

There have been many compilations made of Percy Sledge’s material throughout the years, and you can be sure that most—if not all of them—contain “When a Man Loves a Woman” as the first track. Sledge’s career is unique in that he is possibly the only figure of deep southern soul to become something of an icon of the genre based on the merits of one perfect song. Selflessly, though he played a major part in the writing of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge deflected his songwriter’s credit to his band members. After the success of the song, Sledge’s popularity went into a rapid decline, but the singer was undeterred as he continued to tour tirelessly throughout the next three decades, even when his recorded output slowed down. Today, Sledge’s music is greatly appreciated as a significant part of country soul.


Percy Sledge was born on November 25, 1940, in the small farming region of Leighton, Alabama. He grew up doing the bucolic chores that were required of him, but by his teenage years he was singing at clubs with local groups. At age 20, Sledge joined a burgeoning ensemble known as The Esquires Combo—a group that was tremendously popular in Alabama and Mississippi, where they played college campuses in the early 1960’s. During this time he split time working at a hospital during the day, singing in the local Baptist church on Sunday and performing with the band in between. It was at a Christmas party in 1965 that he improvised the first rendering of what would become his massive hit, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.” While Cameron Lewis (bass) and Andrew Wright (organ) played a slow, hushed rhythm, Sledge—drunk and depressed over a woman—belted out a rough version of the tune, completely unaware of the impact it would have. Shortly thereafter, Sledge contacted Quin Ivy on the advice of a friend. Ivy, who owned a record store and produced albums as well in Sheffield, Alabama, asked Sledge to sing for him upon their first meeting, which he did. It was Ivy who ultimately convinced Sledge that he’d be better off as a solo artist. The 25-year-old singer was soon in Ivy’s recording studio, working with session musicians from Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals. Early in 1966, they laid an official version of “When a Man Loves a Woman” to tape.


President of Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler was sent a tape of the recording, and Sledge was immediately signed to a deal. Whether it was because of poor management or simply due to Sledge’s humble naivet√©, he surrendered his writer’s credit on the song that would make him famous to Lewis and Wright. The song was released in April of 1966 and went straight to #1 in the US by the end of May, also making a dent in the charts overseas. The accompanying full-length LP—When A Man Loves A Woman (1966 Atlantic)— went to #2 on the R&B charts in America. He had a nominal hit with “Warm and Tender Love,” released that July, which climbed to #17. It wasn’t until two years later that Sledge would have a hit comparable to his first, when “Take Time To Know Her” from the album of the same name hit #11 in March of 1968.


All the while Sledge did his best to maintain a spotlight through tireless performing. In 1970, he even went where few other artists dared to go, to South Africa, hoping to make a concert film to be called Soul Africa. The country had been controversial for musicians then, boycotted by black artists since 1965 for its racial segregation of concert goers. Sledge was heavily criticized for his decision to play there.


In the early 1970’s, Sledge’s career slowed down considerably. He recorded “Sunshine” in 1973, his first single in four years and last for Atlantic, and it only reached #89 on the R&B charts, not showing at all on the pops. In 1974, he signed with Capricorn Records, a label owned by his manager, Phil Walden. That November, Sledge would release a surprise hit single, and what would be his last hit song for over a decade, “I’ll Be Your Everything,” which climbed to #15 on the R&B charts.


Sledge found himself an audience again in 1987 when an unlikely filmmaker gave his biggest song new life. Oliver Stone used “When a Man Loves a Woman” as the centerpiece song of his film, Platoon. Sledge performed the song on Saturday Night Live that year, increasing its sudden resurgence in popularity. In 1989, he won the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Career Achievement Award. Sledge again capitalized on his newfound popularity, playing over 100 shows a year on into the ’90s.


In 1992 there was some controversy over a pair of Sledge’s well-known songs. Two members of New Kids on the Block had co-written a song called “I’ll Be Your Everything,” which shared its name with the Sledge hit from 20 years before. The name wasn’t the only similar-sounding trait between the two records, which led to legal disputes at the New York District Court. The New Kids and their co-writer, Tommy Page, claimed to never have heard the song they were alleged to have stolen, and they were acquitted on insufficient evidence. That same year, Michael Bolton won a Grammy for his rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and in his acceptance speech, there was no mention of the man who first brought the southern soul standard into existence. Bolton took a great deal of heat from soul aficionados, later apologizing in subsequent interviews and in a letter to Sledge. The soul legend didn’t have time to fret over such trivial squabbles, however, as he was preparing his comeback. In 1994, Percy Sledge released Blue Night (Point Blank), his first album of new songs in exactly 20 years, to positive reviews. One decade later, Sledge surfaced again with Shining Through the Rain (2004 Varese Sarabande), proof that his voice is one of the most resilient in all of soul music. Sadly, Percy Sledge died of liver failure April 14, 2015, at the age of 74.



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