When God Loves a Man: An Appreciation for Percy Sledge
As the song begins, it’s amazingly simple. There’s no dramatic build up, no minimalist entry way; it’s just the sound of the drums, an electric bass, and a church organ together. They wait as though they call for some sense of devotion in anticipation of a voice. We know, when the preacher-singer begins -- and begin, he will -- that there will be a testimony, a preaching, a baring of the soul. In the first 10 seconds of the song, we know, church has begun. Can I hear an Amen?
Then, the singer/preacher breaks into song. It’s an old Southern tradition familiar to most African-American churches in the Deep South, the preaching that has a story to tell, a truth to impart. But, in this case, the preacher’s voice isn’t filled with the rage and desperation of saving his flock from a burning hell and the ravages of sin. Instead, it's a call to love. Not just any love, but the love that comes from a heart of passion -- real passion. He begins to call us all to love, real love, as he sings, ”When a man loves a woman...”
You know the rest. You’ve heard it a thousand times. As the voice of the preacher-singer joins in alongside the church organ, drums, and bass, it seems like a chorus of universal truth, although it’s a singular voice. The voice seems to sing through the ages to the moment. The message of love comes from his core. It goes out through the radio, on vinyl 45 rpms, through black & white televisions, movies and into our hearts, deep into our hearts. And this song and this voice stays. It will not, cannot be forgotten. Like the voice of his ancestors, it saves us from ourselves, from our own personal hell fire.
When God loved a man, Percy Sledge was born. When Percy Sledge loved a song, “When a Man Loves a Woman” was born.
When Percy Sledge died on April 14, 2015, he went from being an American treasure to becoming an immortal legend, not on the basis of one song, but on a career built on his love for music, fans, his God, his family, and most of all, a life that allowed him to share his greatest gift: the beauty of his voice. His was a voice that knew the soul of the song deeply. He was able to take a simple song and make it glow with truth and joy. His most publically successful moments came during the '60s when he recorded songs that would allow his voice to be heard by so many throughout the world. His was the kind of voice that stops you in your tracks.
Like so many soul singers of his era, he started with humble roots in the heart of the South, the midst of segregation, poverty, and racism.
Born on November 25, 1940, in Alabama, Sledge worked in the fields in his hometown of Leighton, Alabama, before taking a job as a hospital orderly. Like many artists of the region, he found his voice in the gospel music of his church during childhood. By the mid-1960s he was touring weekends fronting a band known as The Esquires Combo. Through his job at the hospital, he was introduced to a local record producer/DJ, Quin Ivy. The result was his first record contract.
The first song he recorded was “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Although it was a group effort consisting mainly of Esquires band members Andrew Wright and Calvin Lewis, with lyrical input from Sledge, Wright and Lewis were given the only songwriting credit. While producer Quin Ivy liked the melody, he pushed the band for more positive lyrics. The singer told how his lyrical inspiration came when a girlfriend left him for a modeling job out of the area. He began to work his lyrics around the melody created by Lewis and Wright. According to Percy Sledge in an interview with The L.A.Times:
"When I wrote the song at first, it was called 'Why Did You Leave Me Baby.' And I changed it from that to 'When a Man Loves a Woman.' I just reversed it. Quin told me that if I was to write some lyrics around that melody and the expression I'd put into 'Why Did You Leave Me Baby,' he believed it would've been a hit record. He was one of the top disc jockeys at that time. Sure enough, he asked me if I had any lyrics for that. He said, 'That's it! Write a story around that title! What a song that would be with that feeling you had!’ It was a song that was meant to be. It wasn't just what I had done; it was the musicians, the producer, the background singers, the right time."
Recorded and released in 1966, the song spent two weeks at the #1 position on the U.S. Billboard charts. He had a follow-up hit with “Take Time to Know Her,” during the 1960s. The pheonomanal success of “When a Man Loves a Woman” assured Percy Sledge a constant place on the international touring circuit. He also experienced a career renaissance in the '80s and '90s when the song was used in films and commercials.
But, there was a lack of new material and opportunities to record with no assurance of a hit song that might have the same impact as his past hit. A glance over his discography shows a pattern of repackaging the same songs from earlier sessions.
However, in 1994 this changed thanks to a few fans in the music industry. We have to thank Saul Davis, Barry Goldberg, and Textones co-founder Carla Olson for Percy Sledge’s two most recent albums, 1994’s Grammy-nominated Blue Night and 2004’s Shining through the Rain.
In a recent interview with Saul Davis and Carla Olson, their memories were clear and their sense of honor and awe at working with Percy Sledge was tangible in their voices. How did they come to work with Sledge? According to Davis, “I was driving and I heard his warm and tender voice … it sounded like love. I began to wonder what’s going on with Percy Sledge these days. So I tracked him down through his agent. I really wanted to do a new album with him with new material. A friend in Sweden suggested a label. That’s where our funding came from. Our session players included Carla, Mick Taylor, Bobby Womack, and Greg Leisz.”
The album, with Davis co-produced with blues legend Barry Goldberg, retains the old Muscle Shoals feel and simplicity. The songs were carefully chosen for the singer, include an unreleased song written by the Bee Gees. It won the W.C. Handy Blues album of the year in 1996. It was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
According to Carla Olson the experience was like no other she had ever experienced in her life time:
“Percy was one of a kind," she says. "He had such a powerful voice. Oh, that voice … you just never could think it could be anyone else once you heard him seeing. So distinctive. And he was singing one of my songs. What an honor! He was such a gentleman. He was so sweet. I’d think, ‘How can any man be so sweet!’ Not only did we record the albums, but we toured overseas. At one of our stops, the crowds at the airport were so crazy, we had to smuggle him off the plane in a food cart!”
But there were personal times as well, between Olson and Sledge.
“Once we were driving home from the studio during 1994," she remembers. "He was really curious about songwriting. He’d ask me how I write songs. I asked him if he had a piano and when he said he did, I encouraged him to pick out the notes to a melody. He was like a kid. He got excited. He wanted to try it right away. I don’t know if he ever started writing songs. The funniest thing was when I asked him which peer-singer scared him. He said Joe Tex! He said he’d never want to follow Joe Tex!”
Olson, Barry Goldberg, and Saul Davis recorded a follow-up to Blue Night in 2004 with artistic results equal to its predecessor. The following year, Sledge was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
But, the story wasn’t over for Percy Sledge. His last album recorded and released in 2013 was a homecoming for him, returning to him to his roots. The Gospel of Percy Sledge stands up to all of his previous work with a solid contemporary soul-gospel feel. His voice was in fine form as he returned one last time to the studio to become the preacher-singer. Most notably, his interpretation of Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately” is enough to make the Belfast-based singer proud. It also is fitting that, as Sledge began to face his own mortality on Earth, he embraced the music of his youth and the songs he held deepest in his spirit.
When he died this April, it was not a complete surprise. He had been receiving hospice care for terminal liver cancer. But, when his voice was silenced, the universe felt like a sadder and smaller place.
Still, the voice of the preacher-singer cannot be silenced. It was clear at his funeral, when an impressive roster of gospel, soul, and rock musicians gathered to celebrate his life in a three-hour service.
But, it was not goodbye. We can’t say goodbye to the likes of Percy Sledge. Fortunately, we can once again, turn out the lights, get close to the one we love, and let Sledge one more time sing those words of fire and passion: ”When a man loves a woman ...”
Originally featured in San Diego Troubadour