Friday, April 25, 2008

When A Man Loves A Woman, Percy Sledge (1966)

I just got back from a business trip to Alabama, so wouldn't this be a good time to mention one of the most sublime songs ever to have been incubated there, Percy Sledge's unforgettable When A Man Loves A Woman?

The backstory may very well explain why it feels like one of the most authentic soul ballads ever recorded. Not a song that was handed to him by other composers as was so often the case, Sledge spontaneously belted it out one night when he was being paid to sing songs written by others in a nightclub in Sheffield, Alabama.

According to Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere to Run, one of the definitive histories of American soul music, Sledge's regular singing gig - he worked as a hospital orderly by day - was suffering mightily because a broken heart had put him off his game. One night he asked the bass player and organist accompanying him to give him any key. (He later gave them writing credits on the song.) Howling "a bunch of stray thoughts on the blindness and paralysis of love," according to Hirshey, the anguish streamed out of him in the form of When A Man Loves A Woman. I'm trying to imagine what it must have been like to be in that audience!

Later, he was signed to Atlantic Records following a local record shop audition, having further refined the fruits of that spontaneous combustion into the song we know today. Session musicians from Alabama's legendary Fame studios in Muscle Shoals backed him up on organ and horns, with the result being the perfect expression of a man hopelessly in love and being played for a fool.

I was a mere 13 years old when this was released - as I've written previously, so many of the soul songs of this period were way beyond my maturity level in their focus, yet they left an indelible impression upon me of what life was going to be like down the long and winding road.


cornbread hell said...

this post, much like the song, gives me chills.

Linda G said...

This song has always moved me. Knowing the story behind it will forever make it all the more meaningful. And no one could sing it like he does. I sang along with Michael Bolton's version whenever I heard it on the radio...but this one really belongs to Percy Sledge.

As always...thanks for the memories.

Sheila said...

Personally, I never liked the Bolton version. He always sounded constipated.

It's Percy's song, most definitely.