A stellar second baseman, his career plan was to become a professional baseball player. But when he recorded When a
Man Loves a Woman in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, while still in his baseball uniform right after playing a game, everything
changed for Percy Sledge.
Sledge, accompanied by his wife and daughter, sat down for a quick interview just before taking the stage at the annual Cattle
Festival in Abbeville, Louisiana. Born on November 25, 1940 in Leighton, Alabama, he moved to Baton Rouge in 1966.
With his characteristic gap-toothed grin that is as much his trademark as his distinctive vocal stylings, he nodded toward his
wife seated at the opposite end of the table. “I met her,” he said. “She’s from Morgan City and we moved to Baton Rouge.
You couldn’t drag me away from here now with a team of horses.”
On April 10, 1966, he walked into a recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record his signature hit When a
Man Loves a Woman. He was still wearing his baseball uniform. “Yeah, you heard right,” he said when asked about the
accuracy of the story. “I think I was well on my way to a professional baseball career. I was a pretty good second baseman
back then. My dream was to play for my favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds.”
Typical of many aspiring singers, the road to stardom wasn’t a smooth one. He first had to pay his dues by working in
the farming fields of Leighton before securing a job as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital in Sheffield, Alabama.
All the while he played baseball and performed and toured when he could with the Esquires Combo. One of his hospital
patients was a friend of record producer Quin Ivy and introduced the two to each other. An audition followed and Sledge
was signed to a recording contract. Unlikely as it may seem, When a Man Loves a Woman was his very first effort.
Ivy released the single as an independent and licensed it to Atlantic Records. Atlantic lost no time in buying out Sledge’s
contract and by May 1966, the song had climbed to number one on both the pop and R&B charts, remaining on the charts
for thirteen and sixteen weeks, respectively. Other hits followed in quick succession, including Warm and Tender Love
(number 17) and It Tears Me Up (number 20), also in 1966; Baby Help Me (number 87), What Am I Living For
(number 91), Out of Left Field (number 59 and featured in the Tom Cruise/Paul Newman movie The Color of Money),
Love Me Tender (number 40), and Cover Me (number 42), in 1967; Take Time to Know Her (number 11) and
Sudden Stop (number 63) in 1968; and My Special Prayer (number 93) and Any Day Now (number 86) in 1968.
Though it was his lowest-ranking hit, My Special Prayer is perhaps his most beautiful ballad and one with which he opens
each of his concerts.
The first gold record for Atlantic, When a Man Loves a Woman, was a song Sledge had only hummed while picking
cotton as a youth. He improvised the lyrics while performing at a frat party at the University of Mississippi. Atlantic
executive Jerry Wexler called the recording session for what would become the cornerstone of Sledge’s career “a
transcendent moment.” He described the song as “a holy love hymn.” As if its first time around were not enough,
the song was revived when it was featured in television commercials and in the soundtrack of the 1987 Academy
Award-winning movie Platoon and in the 1994 Meg Ryan film When a Man Loves a Woman. When it hit the charts a
second time, reaching number two in Britain, it led to personal appearances by Sledge on Saturday Night Live and
Entertainment Tonight, which in turn led to extended concert tours in the U.S. as well as Africa and Europe, where
the song was featured in a Levi’s Jeans commercial. He plays about a hundred dates per year in the U.S. and Europe.
Despite, or perhaps because of the resurgence of his career, Sledge, in 1994, fell into a trap that has become familiar to
entertainers from Willie Nelson to Redd Foxx. Whether it wants to make an example of high profile personalities
or not remains unclear, but the IRS was soon hot on Sledge’s trail for allegedly failing to report more than $260,000
in income. He was subsequently ordered to pay more than $95,000 in back taxes, penalties, and interest, sentenced to
six months in a Baton Rouge halfway house, and placed on five years’ probation.
Sledge, besides picking up five gold and two platinum albums while at Atlantic, also was the first recipient of the Rhythm &
Blues Foundation’s Career Achievement Award. He is a regular feature at events such as the Gulf Coast Jam, Port Arthur’s
Mardi Gras celebration, and other Southwest Texas productions. He even made a television ad for white Baton Rouge
attorney L.D. Sledge. Standing next to the barrister, he opened the commercial saying, “We’re not brothers, but….”
Sledge was a close friend of the late Otis Redding. “Once, when I was in a recording session, I took a little break and
called him at his studio and we talked for awhile,” he said. “I asked him what he was working on and he said he was
cutting the old Frank Sinatra song Try A Little Tenderness, which really blew me away. I told him that was really
weird because I was recording it, too.” He was also a close friend of the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and toured
with him. When told that Brown, who had lost everything when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his Slidell, Louisiana
home, had just died in Houston of complications from heart disease and cancer, Sledge was stunned and saddened.
“I didn’t know that. I’m truly sorry. Gatemouth was a wonderful person to be around and was a wonderfully talented
performer. I’ll miss him.”
Asked to name his favorite singer, Sledge declined. “I like them all,” he said. “I listen to Otis, Elvis, Merle Haggard,
Marty Robbins, Charlie Rich, Kris Kristofferson, The Temptations, B.B. King, The Bee Gees, The Righteous Brothers.
I just couldn’t name a favorite.” As for any plans for retirement, there are none. “I love performing,” he said. “I will never
quit as long as I’m able to draw a breath.”
Sledge was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 and When a Man Loves a Woman was chosen by
the Rock and Roll Hall Fame as one of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock.
On May 11, 2007 in performance in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Percy Sledge was inducted into The Louisiana Music
Hall Of Fame.
Bio courtesy of Tom Aswell – Author of – “Louisiana Rocks – The True Genesis Of Rock And Roll”