Sin­gle ses­sion launched Sledge, who died aged 74


Sound en­gi­neer Jimmy John­son knew he had cap­tured some­thing spe­cial on tape as Percy Sledge fin­ished singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” in a record­ing stu­dio in 1965.

Sledge, who died Tues­day, grew up singing in nearby cot­ton fields of north­west Alabama and never had been in a stu­dio be­fore that day. He didn’t even know how to work a mi­cro­phone dur­ing that first ses­sion, John­son said.

John­son had to twirl the vol­ume di­als on the record­ing ma­chine just to keep Sledge’s un­trained voice at the cor­rect lev­els dur­ing the ses­sion, but it worked. The track would be­come a No. 1 hit in 1966 and es­tab­lish Sledge as a rhyth­mand-blues singer of the first or­der. “It gave us chills,” John­son said. Af­ter­ward, Sledge be­came a star and helped his na­tive north­west Alabama es­tab­lish it­self as a record­ing Mecca that drew Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dy­lan, the All­man Broth­ers, Bob Seger and other top-shelf stars of the 1960s and ‘70s in search of the “Mus­cle Shoals Sound.”

John­son, now 72, said it all be­gan when Sledge sang “When a Man Loves a Woman,” with its haunt­ing lyrics and his mourn­ful, blue-eyed style.

“Ev­ery­thing lined up for this,” said John­son, who played rhythm gui­tar for the great Mus­cle Shoals stu­dio group called “The Swampers.”

“I mean, the song was one of the best songs I’ve ever heard even to this day. The lyrics were in­cred­i­ble. The melody was won­der­ful. Percy’s voice and the job he did,” John­son said in his home over­look­ing the Ten­nessee River. “I mean, hey, it still holds up to­day.”

John­son’s busi­ness part­ner, 71-yearold bass player David Hood, an­other of the leg­endary stu­dio mu­si­cians from Mus­cle Shoals, said he owed his ca­reer to Sledge and de­scribed him as the “nicest per­son you’d ever want to meet.”

‘When a Man Loves a Woman’

Hood — the fa­ther of Drive-By Truck­ers front man Pat­ter­son Hood — played with Sledge for years and last saw him in the fall, when friends threw a ben­e­fit show for Sledge af­ter learn­ing he had been di­ag­nosed with liver dis­ease.

“He was very sick, very weak, but he did come up on stage and sing “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Hood said.

Sledge, who soared from part-time singer and hos­pi­tal or­derly to last­ing fame with his aching, for­lorn per­for­mance on the clas­sic song, was 74 when he died in Ba­ton Rouge, Louisiana.

His fam­ily said in a state­ment re­leased through his manager, Mark Ly­man, that Sledge died at his home af­ter a year­long strug­gle with can­cer. The cause of death was liver fail­ure, Ly­man said.

De­spite hav­ing other hits Sledge be­came known for “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It was the first No. 1 hit from Mus­cle Shoals, and the first gold record for At­lantic Records.

At­lantic Records ex­ec­u­tive Jerry Wexler later called the song “a tran­scen­dent mo­ment” and “a holy love hymn.” Sledge’s hit be­came a stan­dard that sus­tained his long tour­ing ca­reer in the United States, Europe and South Africa and led to his in­duc­tion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. It was a fa­vorite at wed­dings — Sledge him­self did the hon­ors at a cer­e­mony for mu­si­cian and ac­tor Steve Van Zandt — and of­ten turned up in movies, in­clud­ing “The Big Chill,” “The Cry­ing Game” and a 1994 Meg Ryan drama named for the song’s ti­tle.

Rec­og­niz­able by his wide, gap-toothed smile, Sledge had a hand­ful of other hits be­tween 1966 and 1968, in­clud­ing “Warm and Ten­der Love,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Out of Left Field” and “Take Time to Know Her.” He re­turned to the charts in 1974 with “I’ll Be Your Ev­ery­thing.”

Be­fore he be­came fa­mous, Sledge worked in the cot­ton fields around his home­town of Leighton in north­west Alabama and took a job in a hos­pi­tal in nearby Sh­effield. He also spent week­ends play­ing with a rhythm-and-blues band called the Esquires. A hos­pi­tal pa­tient heard him singing while work­ing and rec­om­mended him to record pro­ducer Quin Ivy.

In the 2013 doc­u­men­tary “Mus­cle Shoals,” Sledge re­called record­ing the song: “When I came into the stu­dio, I was shak­ing like a leaf. I was scared.” He added that it was the “same melody that I sang when I was out in the fields.”

“I just wailed out in the woods and let the echo come back to me.”

Sledge said the song was in­spired by a girl­friend who left him for a mod­el­ing ca­reer af­ter he was laid off from a con­struc­tion job in 1965. But in a de­ci­sion that likely cost him a for­tune, he gave the song­writ­ing cred­its to two Esquires band­mates, bassist Calvin Lewis and or­gan­ist An­drew Wright, who helped him with it.

While iden­ti­fied with Mus­cle Shoals, Sledge lived for most of his ca­reer in Ba­ton Rouge. He was in­ducted into the Alabama Mu­sic Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Louisiana Mu­sic Hall of Fame in 2007.

Dick Cooper, cu­ra­tor of the Alabama Mu­sic Hall of Fame, said Sledge’s big­gest hit laid the foun­da­tion for decades of mu­sic.

“‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ is one of the great­est and most com­pelling of the soul bal­lads that have ever been recorded,” he said. “It set a trend that was fol­lowed through­out the ‘60s and ‘70s by a num­ber of artists.”


In this Oct. 28, 2008 file photo, Percy Sledge kneels as he per­forms “When a Man Loves a Woman” along with the Mus­cle Shoals Rhythm Sec­tion at the Mu­si­cians Hall of Fame awards show in Nashville, Ten­nessee.

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