It’s great to start your career with a spectacular success, but trying to top it, or even match it, has been the undoing of many an artist. That wasn’t the case with Percy Sledge (November 25, 1940-April 14, 2015). One song propelled him through a career that lasted 50 years.
His debut single “When a Man Loves a Woman” skyrocketed to No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B singles charts when it was released in 1966. It was Atlantic Records first gold record and the first No. 1 to come out of Muscle Shoals, where it was recorded. (The small Alabama town would soon become a mecca for other major artists, including Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett and The Rolling Stones.)
The song is credited to several of Sledge’s bandmates from The Esquires, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright. Sledge also laid claim to writing the song, citing that a recent breakup with his girlfriend had provided the inspiration behind it.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” had a second life 20 years after it was recorded when it started showing up on soundtracks for “The Big Chill,” “Platoon,” “The Crying Game” and even in a 1987 Levi’s Commercial. Michael Bolton recorded it for his 1991 album “Time, Love and Tenderness.”
Add another 20 years and Percy Sledge was performing the song at his 2005 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So strong was the success of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge’s other accomplishments are often overlooked. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 1994’s “Blue Night.” That album, which included performances by Steve Cropper, Mick Taylor and Bobby Womack, did win the 1996 W.C. Handy Award for Best Soul/Blues Album.
“Muscle Shoals,” the Movie, featuring Percy Sledge