Percy Sledge's 1966 smash "When A Man Loves A Woman" is properly remembered as a stone soul classic. But like so much of the music created in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Sledge's signature number was imbued with a goodly amount of country, too. As music historian Barney Hoskyns has observed, this thrilling brand of "country soul" was essentially "a black gospel foreground...superimposed on a white country background."
From its theme of "heartless love" to its spare arrangement and straight-up-and-down beats, "When A Man Loves A Woman" is a particularly telling example of that style, not least because Percy's voice and phrasing, in addition to their clear gospel origins, were always so pinched and nasal, so country, to begin with.
Sledge's country side was never more obvious than on an album called I'll Be Your Everything. Originally released in 1974, when Sledge hadn't had a sizable pop or R&B hit in nearly a decade, the album reunited the singer with his "When A Man Loves A Woman" producer, Quin Ivy. Together they shaped an album that seems to have updated the strengths of Sledge's '60s work by incorporating the pop-and-soul-influenced hits on early '70s country radio.
The album's superb title track -- which, reaching #15 on the R&B charts, turned out to be Sledge's final chart hit -- wouldn't have sounded too out-of-place back-to-back with a prime Conway Twitty or Gene Watson single of the period (both of whom's vocals often were clearly inspired, in part, by Sledge and other masters of country soul), or next to one of Billy Sherrill's crossover hits with Charlie Rich. In fact, I'll Be Your Everything includes a version of Rich's "Behind Closed Doors". While Ivy was no Billy Sherrill, it's still a fine take, lush and soaring even if it goes a bit over the top with the gospel choir.
Most of the album follows in this quite enjoyable country-soul vein, with a few cuts standing tall enough to at least catch sight of Sledge's earlier greatness. For instance, "If This Is The Last Time", penned by famed country songwriter Dallas Frazier, heads over the top too -- with a choir, and strings as well -- but this time to thrilling dramatic effect.
Surprisingly, given the country-soul blend that unifies the record, the finest moment here is probably the least country. A shoulda-been smash, "Love Among The People" deploys a soaring arrangement that borrows as much from Thom Bell's productions with the Spinners as it does from those classic Sherrill sides. It's a stone soul classic.