In the wrong hands, When A Man Loves A Woman might be considered the ultimate in schmaltz, but when Sledge sang it with that powerful emotionally charged voice, he gave the song such anguish, such truth that you could feel it too and literally live through the pain of the break-up he himself had gone through. Overplayed to the point of despair by radio then and since, the song became a worldwide hit in 1966 reaching No.1 on the US charts and No.4 in the UK. (The song was a hit again in the UK reaching No.2 in 1987 after a successful Levi advertising campaign). Michael Bolton tortured the populace with his mullet and a White Soul version reaching No.1 in the US in 1991.
Percy Tyrone Sledge was born in Alabama in 1941 and went from working in the fields in the south to construction work before becoming a singer. As a singer Sledge owned the song and despite its many cover versions the original was simply the best. Allegedly, inspiration came from an idea Sledge had after a painful relationship break-up when he lost one of those early jobs and his girlfriend left him as a consequence, in search of her own fame and fortune. The song originally called, Why Did You leave Me Baby, again Sledge’s idea, was heard by producer Quin Ivy and he thought the song needed a rewrite. In came bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright changing the title to When A Man Loves A Woman. Sledge was never given credit for the song although he claims he should have got it, the idea originating with him, he was just grateful that the song had been so successfully reworked into a modern classic that he gave the credit away. His debut became his biggest hit and his signature song. How great his contribution to the song was is now lost to history but his delivery and passion in the performance certainly contributed to the song’s enduring legacy and iconic status.
There’s a story that the song was recorded twice in the sixties because Jerry Wexler at Atlantic records thought the horns were out of tune, so they rerecorded it and then accidentally used the original version. Who knows if the rerecorded version would have been as successful?
Sledge died of cancer on the 14th April at the age of 74 – he was the father of 12 children. Rest in peace and condolences to friends and family.