“When A Man Loves A Woman”
Artist: Percy Sledge
Writers: Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright (Percy Sledge uncredited)
“It was shortly after (Wilson) Pickett’s first session that Fame’s studio musicians cut a record behind an unknown local singer named Percy Sledge. That record was ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ which, with its Bach-like organ, soaring vocal, and frequently imitated church feel might be defined as the quintessential soul sound. Then in February 1967, Jerry Wexler brought down a newly signed artist for her first Atlantic recording session….although she had been in the business all her life, she had never, it was said, lived up to her potential. The artist was Aretha Franklin…”
(Peter Guralnick, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976)
“As Clarence (Carter) prepares for his set, Percy Sledge is recalling how he came to compose his biggest hit…
“He was moonlighting from his job as a hospital orderly, singing with a local band at a club in Sheffield, Alabama, and he was so low with woman troubles he couldn’t even make it through the Smokey Robinson and Beatles songs he had been doing at dances and clubs. He turned to bass player Cameron Lewis and organ player Andrew Wright and just asked them to give him a key, any damned key. He half sang, half bawled along in his mammoth, achy baritone, just a bunch of stray thoughts on the blindness and paralysis of love: ‘If she’s bad, he can’t see it….’
“‘Wasn’t no heavy thought in it,’ he says. ‘I was just so damned sad.’
“Sometime later, when he had calmed down and refined the thing into a slow, anguished ballad, he gave Lewis and Wright songwriters’ credit. By then Percy had won an Atlantic recording contract by auditioning in a record shop in Sheffield for a local producer named Quin Ivy. The song was cut there, in Ivy’s South Camp Studios, with some personnel borrowed from Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in nearby Muscle Shoals. Percy grew up in Leighton, not ten miles from the Fame operation. So he says it all felt right–the musicians, the place, and the song. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was Percy’s debut on Atlantic, and it sold more than 1 million copies in the spring of 1966 and stayed at number one on the pop charts for two weeks.”
(Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, 1984)
“Muscle Shoals burst upon the consciousness of the world at large in the spring of 1966 with a single record that was homegrown, home-produced, and would forever eliminate the necessity of Jimmy Johnson finding his way to Athens or anywhere else. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ established Muscle Shoals as a national recording center, brought Jerry Wexler directly from Memphis to Fame, and became the first Southern soul number actually to top the pop charts. It was also as significant an integrating factor in its way as Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s All Right,’ Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti,’ or Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham of two years before. The artist was Jimmy Hughes’s cousin, Percy Sledge, from nearby Leighton; the engineer was Jimmy Johnson, who also played on the date along with the rest of the new rhythm section; the session, oddly enough, though, was neither recorded by Rick Hall nor put out on the Fame label, despite the fact that Rick played a major role in its release and reaped most of the benefits from it….
“‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ completed the process begun, really, by Joe Tex’s success of the previous year….Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song, the kind of song that affected its fans so powerfully that, as Jimmy Johnson says, ‘I’ve heard stories of people driving off the road when they heard that record come on the air.’”
(Peter Guralnick, upping the ante, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 1986)
If one goes to the liner notes of Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, the story takes on even more complicated and far-ranging dimensions which are beyond the scope of this essay (hey, anyone who has the money should get hold of the box anyhow).
The main reason I posted the quotes above is to show how stories surrounding certain records evolve–note especially the distance between the Peter Guralnick of 1975 and the Peter Guralnick of 1986–the difference between a passing thought and a consuming passion.
Well, that and to open the discussion of course…
* * * *
Percy Sledge was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
Ever since, he’s been a favorite whipping boy for anyone who thinks the Hall is too big, its membership requirements too lenient and/or vague, its methods insufficiently transparent, or that its very existence is a blight on the face of humanity.
Of course, just about everybody thinks Percy’s signature record is wonderful but…it was just one record!
And it wasn’t all that important!
And he wasn’t really rock and roll!
And he’s a journeyman!…At best!!!
And, and, and…
Well you get the drift.
As a result, Sledge routinely shows up on the lists of the undeserving–or of those who should be kicked out…or just excluded from alternative Halls developed in the imagination.
Mind you, he’s not the only artist so treated. But he seems to be the one about whom there is almost universal acceptance of his general unworthiness for such high honor (which most of those complaining are quick to point out is not really a high honor at all, since it extends to artists the caliber of, well….Percy Sledge! The crit-illuminati did not get where they are–in a position to bend so many impressionable minds–without developing a certain ability to frustrate the resistance.)
Alas, I’m part of that resistance, so I have to give it a try.
I think Percy Sledge belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think if he’s a “journeyman” then pretty much all soul singers who aren’t Aretha Franklin or Al Green are the same. Heck, I think he’s a no-brainer and always was.
I thought he always was, because I used to listen to his old Greatest Hits collection pretty religiously and knew he was a fantastic singer with a nice run of R&B and Pop hits (he had a dozen or so chart hits, including four that went top twenty on the Pop chart and top ten on the R&B chart so he wasn’t quite the one hit wonder (or no hit wonder) that many of his (mostly white) Hall contemporaries who don’t get complained about were.
Besides, anybody who can leave a deathless “best of” behind is Hall of Fame material in my book.
But in case I might have wavered, Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, which includes everything he recorded for the label from 1966 to 1973, laid any doubts to rest–because there you have a hundred or so sides that, with no more than half-dozen exceptions, live up to the quality of the dozen I already knew inside and out.
Anybody who could lay down seven years worth of great music while the revolution was still going strong is Hall of Fame material no matter how exclusive you want to make the membership.
In my book.
But actually none of that really matters.
Like Orson Welles used to say about great movies: “You only need one.”
Percy Sledge made a lot of great records. Some might have even been greater than “When A Man Loves A Woman.”
So he didn’t really make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of one record. That’s a club reserved for fifties-era hard rock gods (Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Ritchie Valens, Gene Vincent…all richly deserving, by the way…I’d make similar arguments for them if they needed defending).
Sledge made it because his voice is one of those special few that creates its own club.
He might not strike you at all, but if he does, he’s liable to strike deep.
That’s how mild-mannered black guys who sing ballads get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But if he really had made it on the strength of just one record, and that one record was “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he’d still be worthy.
* * * *
For one thing, it is one of the rare great records that rose from quasi-mystical processes.
You can read the entry quotes above and get a taste of how that process works–how perfunctory “explanations” acquire depth and nuance (as I mentioned above, the liner notes of the box set take the story even further and make it far too complicated to pare down to a handy quote or two–highly recommended reading).
Pared down to bare bones, however, the story goes something like this:
Somewhere, some time, in the mid-sixties, a virtually unknown club singer was on a stage, feeling lousy about a romantic breakup and he started riffing and making up some words.
Somehow, over the next several months he and his band-mates worked up an actual song and recorded it in a place that was about as out of the way as any place could be.
Then his producer sent it to a not-so-out-of-the-way place (New York) and a really big time record man (Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler) who gave said producer a call and said it was promising but they needed to re-record it to give it a more professional feel (or something).
After which, said producer (Quin Ivy) re-recorded the record, didn’t much like what he heard and re-sent the original disguised as the new recording.
Then Jerry Wexler called back and said something along the lines of “that’s more like it!”
Then the record was released on somebody or other’s label (Wexler’s, Fame owner Rick Hall’s, Quin Ivy’s….hard to say, for certain, but everybody seems to agree that Hall got most of the money and it was certainly his studio that benefited most directly).
However it got released, the record went to Number One on the Pop and R&B charts and has stayed on the radio for nearly half a century and counting.
And, as Peter Guralnick points out, it became a signature record of a specifically Southern brand of soul music, which was instantly and forever deemed more “authentic” than its northern counterparts (specifically Detroit’s Motown).
Dubious assertions of authenticity aside (Black America always preferred Motown, actually, and the margin was never close), the ripple effect was enormous.
Next thing you know, Detroit native and newly signed Atlantic artist Aretha Franklin came south and in one brief, rather chaotic session at Muscle Shoals, found her voice.
However the story gets told, it seems generally agreed upon that she came south looking for what Percy Sledge had found: a vibe, a sound, a group of musicians, the magic of a special place, a song.
And, however the story gets told, we have the music she made, which formed the basis of her national breakout and the core of her legend, to remind us of just how successful this unlikely process was.
But “When a Man Loves a Woman” doesn’t really need that sort of long shadow to justify it’s importance.
All it needs is itself.
These days we tend to think of “southern” soul as being half of that north/south equation I mentioned–one which usually gets boiled down to the phrase “Motown and Stax” (with “Stax” standing in for the entire swath of labels running along the Memphis-to-Muscle Shoals axis). That common phrase makes it sound like there was some kind of real balance between the two aesthetics in both art and commerce.
Well, the art thing can be debated, but there was a time when nobody had any illusions about the commerce aspect.
That time ended (and the illusions began) when Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman,”–as deep a soul sound as anyone would ever wax–and it shot straight to the top of the charts.
Maybe it would have ended (and begun) some other way.
Maybe “Stax” would still have become a true cultural–and economic–counterweight to Motown by some other means. Heck, maybe those means would have even come by way of a record actually recorded on the Stax label.
God knows there was enough talent around. Maybe even some bigger talents than Percy Sledge (few as those would be).
Then again…maybe not.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” wasn’t the first deep soul record to gain national success, but it took the game to new heights–and those very heights, reached at a moment when, for a series of complicated reasons, black music that wasn’t recorded by Motown was having more trouble denting the white charts than at any time since Elvis broke out nationally, were what soul (all of soul, not just the southern brand) could and would aspire to for the next decade.
There are reasons we give credit to those who do, as opposed to those who might have done. The most important reasons revolve around just how slippery alternate universes can be.
But another reason is that those who do ultimately create and define reality.
The reality in this case is that the cosmic success (all time classic, #1 Pop, #1 R&B, still inspiring blog essays nearly fifty years later!) of Percy Sledge’s ultimate feel-good-about-feeling-bad record more or less directly brought Aretha Franklin to what may very well have been the one circumstance in the world that could allow her to tap what became transcendental genius.
And that reality is not unrelated to the specific genius of Sledge’s actual recording.
These days, it might not be too much a stretch to say that “When a Man Loves a Woman” is the “blackest” record to top the charts during the hey-day of what I tend to refer to around here as “the revolution”**
Of course, thanks in no small part to the revolution’s real, if ultimately limited, successes, we now have a rather different (though not necessarily more expansive) definition of what “blackness” means–in culture, in music, in the general phantasmagoria of intellectual life in a struggling democracy which really ought to be thriving by now. Once any record as black as “When a Man Loves a Woman” could actually top the Pop charts, the coming rearrangement of the Cosmos was inevitable even if the degree to which this particular monumental record informed–or was informed by–the overarching process is strictly chicken-and-egg, you-said-I-said, let’s-convene-an-all-expenses-paid-scholarly-panel-to-bat-this-about-on-CSPAN-shall-we affair.
What’s rather more clear is just why this particular record had the liberating impact it did.
It meant basically that the man who stood lowest on the political ecomony’s carefully constructed totem pole–a poor African-American from the dreaded rural south–could sing in a voice that called up centuries of pain, real and imagined, personal and cultural, intimate and epic–and channel it into a masterpiece of both technique (once you let go of the false notion that technique can and should be defined only in classical terms, a notion Percy Sledge had quite a bit to do with exposing as rather limited) and emotion (the very thing classical technique was developed to reign in).
The resolution between Sledge’s perfect discipline and deep reserve on the one hand and his access to liberating ecstasy on the other is the very definition of what the American experiment has always aspired to at its best. The idea that we’ll be better tomorrow if–and only if–we remember every single good and bad thing that happened yesterday only has a few transcendent definitions in art.
I don’t know of one better than Percy Sledge singing from the bottom of the well without ever losing his claim to the top of the mountain.
[**NOTE: That is, the musical and cultural revolution that began–as a revolution–the first time Fats Domino’s left hand touched a piano within range of a recording device and ended–as a revolution–the day Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. Others use different markers. Those are mine.]