In a country that always seems hungry for 1960s nostalgia, Percy Sledge’s voice became as familiar as flickering images of JFK. When he belts out the chorus of his iconic 1966 hit, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” his painful mourning instantly evokes that era of turmoil in America.
Sledge died at the age of 73 yesterday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner said he died of natural causes, Sledge had been in hospice care for cancer.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” was his first hit and by far his most immense. Recorded in a town called Sheffield, Alabama, on February 17, 1966, the song was released by Atlantic Records. A testament to its seductive power was the fact that it hit No. 1 on the charts just three months later, on May 28, 1966.
It was considered one of the most successful examples of something called Southern soul.
“Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song,” wrote music historian Peter Guralnick.
But perhaps the most startling note about this monster hit is the fact that Sledge didn’t make a dime in royalties—not because the credit was stolen by some greedy white producer, as happened with so many of Sledge’s contemporaries. No, Sledge gave away the songwriting credit for the song to two bandmates from a group called the Esquires with which he sometimes performed.
Sledge said he had been humming the melody since his days picking cotton in the fields of Alabama. The words came to him after a girlfriend left him for another man. But yet for some inexplicable reason he gave the credit to Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, who had helped him with a few chords.
“Worst decision I ever made,” he once told Blues and Soul magazine. “But I am not at all bitter. I figure if God wanted me to do what I did, and say what I did to tell those guys they could have the song, then I’ll leave it that away.”
But he said he did regret the fact that the song would have been a financial windfall for his children.
Not only did the song become a standard on several movie soundtracks as a quick and easy way to summon nostalgia, it made it back to no. 1 in 1991 when it was covered by Michael Bolton, who won a Grammy for his version. The song was even the title of a film starring Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan in 1994.
The Sledge version even hit the top 10 again in the UK in 1987.
Sledge says he wasn’t bitter, but imagine how torturous it must have been for him to hear the song everywhere he turned for the next 50 years and not earn a penny in royalties? Perhaps out of a generosity returned his former bandmates might have shared some of the windfall with him?
Sledge had a number of other hits, such as “Take Time to Know Her,” “Warm and Tender Love” and “It Tears Me Up.” But nothing ever came close to “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
“The granddaddy to all of my songs. The boss of all of my songs. I have great respect for that song,” he told Blues and Soul. “Always will.”
Sledge was inducted into the Rock Hall in 2005.