Obituary: Percy Sledge
Soul singer who hit big time with first single had planned to be baseball player
Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30
Percy Sledge, the American soul singer who died on Tuesday aged 73, rose to fame with the 1966 hit When a Man Loves a Woman.
The song, a searing emotional roller-coaster, shot to the top of the pop and R&B charts, transforming Percy Sledge from a hospital orderly into one of the prominent voices in Southern soul.
But as he explained in an interview in 2006, although he had sung in his church choir since the age of 12, he had never planned to be a singer. His ambition had been to become a professional baseball player.
When the choirmaster invited him to sing at a recording session with other musicians, Sledge initially turned him down because he had never sung with instruments before. "He said: 'I'll pay you $50', and I said: 'What time should I be there?' That was a lot of money in those days," Sledge recalled.
His performance won such praise that he decided to try to record a song he had written called Why Did You Leave Me Baby?
The record producer, Quin Ivy, said he would consider recording the track, but only if Sledge rewrote it as a love song, which would sell better.
A few weeks later, Ivy asked him how the redrafting was going. "I told him: 'When a man loves a woman, he can't keep his mind on nothin' else,' and he said: 'That's it. That's the song.'"
When a Man Loves a Woman went on to become the first gold record for Atlantic Records and a classic that won a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1999. It also launched Sledge on a 40-year career as a singer.
Sledge himself said years later: "I didn't know anything about music. I guess it was just meant to be."
Percy Tyrone Sledge was born in the farming town of Leighton, Alabama, on November 25 1941. His father died when he was a toddler.
As well as church gospel singing, his chief musical influence in childhood was lachrymose country music, rather than rhythm and blues.
He was working in the fields picking and chopping cotton as a youngster when his boss at the time, Bill McCormack, first suggested that he should sing for a living. "He said: 'One day the whole world will hear that voice,'"
Sledge recalled. "I was about 12 then, and he lived to see it."
In his twenties, Sledge took a job as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital in Sheffield, Alabama and later at a chemical plant. At night he performed with a band. As he told the story, he came up with the words for When a Man Loves a Woman at a performance in the early hours of New Year's Day, 1966.
The song, released that year, reached No 1 in the US and became an international hit. Sledge took credit only for the lyrics, giving the songwriting credit to Cameron Lewis and Andrew Wright, the band members who composed the music with him, a decision he later regretted: "I wish I hadn't've now."
Sledge enjoyed the camaraderie of the soul music business. "It was like a family," he said. "There was no prejudice or anything like that with musicians in those days." For a fertile period through the 1960s and early 1970s he recorded a series of highly emotional soul songs, among them Warm and Tender Love (covered by Elkie Brooks in 1981), It Tears Me Up, Love Me Tender and Cover Me. His second big chart hit was Take Time to Know Her (1968).
This was his moment in the sun, and the high point was his sell-out tour of South Africa in 1969. "We played to whites, blacks, Indians: they said nobody but Percy Sledge could do that kind of a show."
However, as punk and disco moved into the ascendant during the mid- to late-1970s, there was less of an appetite for heart-rending love songs of the sort Sledge had made his own, and it was not until the late 1980s that his fortunes revived. The use of When a Man Loves a Woman in a television commercial for Levi's jeans had the effect of propelling the song once again into the British charts.
At around the same time it featured in the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Vietnam film Platoon; Sledge was also asked by the music producer Barry Goldberg to record a song for the movie Adventures in Babysitting.
In 1989, the singer played at President George HW Bush's inaugural because the Republican Party chairman, Lee Atwater, was a friend of Sledge's, having played backing guitar for him in the 1960s.
In 1994 he recorded a new collection of mostly instrumental songs, Blue Night, featuring performances by Steve Cropper, Bobby Womack and Mick Taylor. The same year he pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion. He was given probation and ordered to repay more than $95,000 in back taxes and undergo addiction therapy.
In 2005 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is survived by his wife, Rosa, and 12 children.