Percy Sledge Had A Voice The Whole World Heard

Apr 14, 2015
Originally published on April 14, 2015 7:45 pm

Soul singer Percy Sledge epitomized Southern soul in ballads like "When A Man Loves A Woman," which became a massive international hit when it came out in 1966. Sledge died Tuesday morning of natural causes in East Baton Rouge, La. He was 74.

When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, Sledge told the audience about having been born in tiny Leighton, Ala., in 1940, and about growing up working in the cotton fields.

"[I was] 10 years old, singing my songs in the fields, picking and chopping cotton. And my boss man tells me one day, he said, 'Perce?' He said, 'That voice that you use comin' out of your throat, the whole world is gonna hear one day.' "

Later, as a hospital orderly, Sledge continued singing for his patients, who made the same prediction. On weekends, he sang with a group called the Esquires Combo. One night in 1966, he was performing at an Elks Club, where DJ and record producer Quinn Ivy happened to be in the audience. Sledge told NPR in 2004 that he hummed a melody for Ivy, who told him to go home and turn it into a song.

"So I went home and stayed home for two or three weeks," Sledge said, "and came back and he asked me, he said, 'Percy, have you come up with any lyrics on "Why'd You Leave Me Baby"?'

"I said, 'No, Quinn, you know how it is, when a man loves a woman, he can't think anyway.'

"So he said, 'That's it. If you could write lyrics around that title, I think you'd have a smash.' And that's how it began."

Sledge recorded his song in 1966 at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, giving songwriting credit to his organist and bassist. The song shot to the top of the pop and R&B charts and, over the years, became an iconic soul anthem. "When A Man Loves A Woman" has been used in countless film soundtracks and commercials, inspired a film by the same name and earned Michael Bolton a Grammy for his cover years later. It was Sledge's most well-known song. But he did have others, like 1968's "Take Time To Know Her," which put him in the Top 20 again.

Sledge's ballads had a lot of country music in them. It was the kind of music he'd heard growing up, and he mixed it with blues and soul.

"Guys like me and Ray Charles, when we was coming up through our days, country music and soul music was just a very thin line between the two," he said.

Sledge continued to make albums, and was performing until just a few years ago — always including his signature song.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Singer Percy Sledge epitomized Southern soul, above all with his 1966 smash hit "When A Man Loves A Woman." Sledge died early this morning of natural causes in East Baton Rouge, La. He was 74 years old. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has an appreciation.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Percy Sledge told an audience at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 2005 about his birth in tiny Leighton, Ala. in 1940 and about working in the cotton fields when he was 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PERCY SLEDGE: And my boss man tells me one day, he said, Perce, he said, that voice that you're using now coming out of your throat, the whole world is going to hear it one day.

DEL BARCO: Later as a hospital orderly, Sledge continued singing for his patients who made the same prediction. One night in 1966, he was singing at an Elks club when a DJ and record producer happened to be in the audience. Sledge told NPR in 2004, he was heartbroken at the time. He hummed a melody for the producer who told him to go home and write lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SLEDGE: So, I went home and stayed home for two or three weeks. I came back and he asked me, he said, Perce, have you come up with any lyrics? I said, well, no, Quinn. I said, you know how it is, when a man loves a woman he can't think anyway. So he said, that's it. He said, if you could write lyrics around that title, I think you'd have a smash. And that's how it began.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN")

SLEDGE: (Singing) When a man loves a woman, can't keep his mind on nothing else. He'd trade the world for the good thing he's found.

DEL BARCO: Sledge gives songwriting credit to his organist and bassist. The song shot to the top of the pop and R and B charts and over the years became an iconic soul anthem for baby boomers, used in film soundtracks and commercials. "When A Man Loves A Woman" inspired a film by the same name and earned Michael Bolton a Grammy Award years later for his cover version. It was Sledge's most well-known song, but he did reach the Top 20 again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE TIME TO KNOW HER")

SLEDGE: (Singing) She said, son, take time to know her. It's not overnight thing.

DEL BARCO: Sledge's ballads had a lot of country in them. It was the kind of music he heard growing up and he mixed it with blues and soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SLEDGE: Guys like me and Ray Charles, I mean, when we was coming up through our days, country music and soul music was just a very thin line between the two.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT TEARS ME UP")

SLEDGE: (Singing) I see you walk with him. I see you talk to him. It tears me up.

DEL BARCO: Percy Sledge continued to make albums and was performing until just a few years ago. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.