Percy Sledge was working as a hospital orderly in the middle 1960s, and spent his evenings singing in front of a band called the Esquires, but not these Esquires. Three of them — Calvin Lewis, Andrew Wright, and Sledge himself — came up with a doleful tune called “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which they took to local DJ and record producer Quin Ivy. A demo was cut, with Sledge but without either Wright or Lewis, which Muscle Shoals impresario Rick Hall liked enough to send upstream to the bigwigs at Atlantic Records. Reportedly, Jerry Wexler thought the horns were off key, but would be happy to hear a revision, which the guys duly cut — and which ended up in the vault, because somehow the original tape was the one issued as Atlantic 2326 in March of 1966.
So Percy Sledge was off and running, and he continued to chart as late as 1974: “I’ll Be Your Everything” made Top 15 on Billboard’s R&B chart and registered briefly on the pop chart. Still, it was that one song that made him famous, and it never left the scene, even materializing at #2 on the British pop chart — in 1987. Sledge never stopped performing; he cut a gospel album in 2013, and I’d bet he was booked for some concert appearances later this year, which, alas, won’t be happening.
And this is my favorite Percy Sledge number, live a few years ago at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, written by Muscle Shoals stalwarts Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. It’s every bit as good as “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and played so seldom on the radio that it always jumps out at you.
Oh, the spiffy Philadelphia girl group known as Sister Sledge? Real name, but no relation.