2015 / Memorial / Music

Remembering Percy Sledge: Listen To Overshadowed Classic

‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ Singer Had Other Hits

Photo: Atlantic Records

Photo: Atlantic Records

To most of the listening public, the name “Percy Sledge” is the answer to a trivia question: What soul singer sang the 1966 romantic classic, “When A Man Loves A Woman”?

The fact that Sledge’s decades-long career can be summarized as a one-hit wonder and he could be thoroughly outshone by his most famous performance is to surrender to reality. Sledge’s anonymity in contrast to the song was even the source of amusement in the 1980s Irish comedy about a soul-music-spouting bar band, “The Commitments.” Early in the film, a daydreaming church organist confesses to the staid parish priest that he is thinking of other songs instead of church hymns.

Keyboard player: Now all I can sing is “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Marvin Gaye.

Priest: Percy Sledge.

Keyboard player: What?

Priest: It was Percy Sledge did that particular song. I have the album.

The point? The song’s enduring popularity has completely eclipsed that of the singer. Sledge was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, but his Hall of Fame bio says little else beyond consistently referencing his signature song.

But just like in any situation in which a vibrant life is given the Cliff Notes treatment, much of value is lost in cutting to the quick.

The abbreviated version of Sledge’s life story will again be a subject for consideration. He died of liver cancer on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La. He was 73 years old.

An Alabama native, Sledge initially struggled to make a living at singing, but it seemed time and luck were on his side. Sledge eventually scored his hit with his first recording, which came during the height of what would become soul music’s golden age. Radio and television audiences and the record-buying public were primed for this kind of music and keen to snatch up every new piece of product. “When A Man Loves A Woman” was a home run on all counts.

However, this soul-music mania eventually turned into a mixed blessing as Sledge was effectively overshadowed in a decade when Stax and Motown records took control of pop and R&B channels and he had to compete for material with the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and so many others.

While Sledge was signed to Atlantic Records — home to Franklin and Charles — he didn’t have the writers and creative advisors who could guide him. While Sledge had other songs — mostly typicaly soul ballads — chart in the 1960s, none rivaled “When A Man Loves A Woman” in either sales success or became quite as symbolic of the age. Sledge would continue to record and tour through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, but with minimal popular success.

Despite this course of events, digging deeper into Sledge’s discography isn’t without its rewards, particularly when we’re talking about his version of “Dark End Of The Street.” With this performance, Sledge crafted a definitive classic every bit as stirring and soulful as “When A Man Loves A Woman.” It wisely trades heart-exploding bombast for a darker, muted tone, one that highlights the song’s added element of human fallibility. This song is about passion so powerful that the lovebirds risk damnation or worse to consummate their love, but even moralizing listeners are cheering them on in the end.

Buffeted by simple, resonating guitar chords played in the Steve Cropper style, church piano and a small female choir, Sledge testifies mournfully on the microphone like he’s speaking on the gallows. A Stax-like horn accompaniment appears during the chorus to perfectly make the music swell.

Although Sledge’s version of the song is very close to fellow singer James Carr’s original recording, Sledge’s version is superior and enjoys the popular reputation as the definitive version of the song. (And it was most likely to Sledge that many other artists — soul, rock, country and pop performers — looked to as model when they recorded their own covers of the song. Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Afghan Whigs and Cat Power all tracked versions of the song.

While “Dark End Of The Street” won’t ever be the kind of song welcomed at a wedding like “When A Man Loves A Woman” or innocently featured on a Valentine’s Day playlist for your beloved, Sledge’s performance again created a definitive song about a facet of love: The heart wants what it wants.

For listeners, their hearts will want to hear “Dark End Of The Street” again after they hear it.

Bonus Track:

Listen to this thrilling live television performance of “When A Man Loves A Woman” and featuring an introduction from fellow soulman Otis Redding.

Note: David’s music column, Soundbytes, appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s website. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2015 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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