November 25, 1941 - April 14, 2015
Southern soul legend Percy Sledge worked in the farm fields surrounding his hometown of Leighton, Alabama, before he was hired to work as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital (now Helen Keller Hospital) in nearby Sheffield.
On weekends, Sledge sang with a local rhythm-and-blues combo called the Esquires. All through the week, he would delight doctors, nurses and patients by singing on the job. One of the hospital’s many highly impressed patients passed on word of Sledge’s soaring and passionate vocals to local music producer, record-store owner and radio disc jockey Quin Ivy, who had just opened his Norala Recording Studios in downtown Sheffield.
As soon as he heard his audition, Ivy signed the young singer to a recording contract. The first song Sledge recorded with Ivy and co-producer Marlin Greene – a heart-stirring ballad called “When a Man Loves a Woman” – became the Muscle Shoals music industry’s first No. 1 hit and the first gold record in the history of Atlantic Records.
Working steadily with Ivy, Greene and Atlantic, Sledge went on to record a long string of Southern soul standards that music critic Dave Marsh called “emotional classics for romantics of all ages.” The magnificent 1966 soul anthem “When a Man Loves a Woman” was followed by “Warm and Tender Love” (No. 5 R&B and No. 17 pop in 1966) and two hits co-written by Muscle Shoals songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, “It Tears Me Up” (No. 7 R&B and No. 20 pop in 1966) and “Out of Left Field” (No. 25 R&B and No. 59 pop in 1967).
Sledge’s subsequent hits included “Take Time to Know Her” (No. 6 R&B and No. 12 pop in 1968), a cover version of “Any Day Now” (No. 35 R&B) and “Cover Me” (No. 39 R&B and No. 42 pop), co-written by Muscle Shoals songwriters Marlin Greene and Eddie Hinton. He returned to the charts in 1974 with his Capricorn Records single “I’ll Be Your Everything,” which climbed to No. 15 on the R&B charts.
Sledge remained an international concert favorite well into the 21st century, and “When a Man Loves a Woman” continues to resurface for new generations through motion picture soundtracks (from The Big Chill and controversial drama The Crying Game to the Meg Ryan film that borrowed the song’s title), television commercials and continual revivals on oldies and classic-rock radio. A cover version by Michael Bolton carried “When a Man Loves a Woman” back to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop charts in 1991.
Long hailed as the “Golden Voice of Soul,” Sledge was inducted into the Rhythm-and-Blues Foundation’s Career Achievement Hall of Fame in 1989. A year later, his first studio project in more than a decade – the comeback album Blue Night, released on Virgin’s Point Blank label – earned considerable critical acclaim.
In 2005, a year after the release of his Varese Saraband album Shining Through the Rain, Sledge was inducted by fellow Muscle Shoals recording artist Rod Stewart into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame. After accepting his award, Sledge sang “When a Man Loves a Woman” on the nationally televised awards show.