Obituary: Percy Sledge

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Percy Tyrone Sledge died from liver failure on April 15, aged 74, in his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He had been battling liver cancer since 2014.

The singer is best known for the pleading ballad When A Man Loves A Woman. It was his first release and hit the US Billboard Hot 100 and R&B No.1 spot and UK Top 5 when issued in 1966 on the Atlantic label. It then went on to sell over a million copies, becoming the label’s first single to do so./o:p

With lyrics written by Sledge and music credited to Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright (Sledge’s then bandmates in the group the Esquires Combo), the song’s power lies in Sledge’s expressive vocal delivery and emotive phrasing. Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler rightly called it “a transcendent moment”. Recorded on February 17, 1966 at producer Quin Ivy’s Norala Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama and featuring backing from Fame studio organist Spooner Oldham and drummer Roger Hawkins, it became the first of a string of classics recorded by Sledge for Atlantic that included Warm And Tender Love, It Tears Me Up, Out Of Left Field, Love Me Tender and Take Time To Know Her.

Born in Leighton, Alabama on November 25 1940, Sledge was the son of a sharecropper and started out singing in church, but he was equally influenced by the country singers he heard on the radio. That mix of black gospel and white country defined his artistry. It was passionate, rich and marked him as one of southern soul’s chief architects. “I just sing how I sing,” he told The Blues in 2010. “I open my mouth and that is the sound that comes out. I’m lucky that way.”/o:p

Married and a father while still in his teens, Sledge worked as a hospital orderly in Colbert County until he was asked to sing with the Esquires Combo. “They offered me $50 a gig,” he said. “That was a lot of money back then. I jumped at the chance. I had a family to support.” After DJ/producer Quin Ivy saw them perform in 1965, he offered Sledge a recording deal. The result, When A Man Loves A Woman, was initially issued on Ivy’s own label, then licensed to Atlantic, who subsequently bought him out of his contract.

The 70s were less profitable for Sledge though. 1974’s I’ll Be Your Everything for Capricorn Records made the US R&B Top 20, but it would take the rediscovery of When A Man Loves A Woman through its use in film soundtracks (1983’s The Big Chill, 1986’s Platoon, 1992’s The Crying Game etc) to kickstart his career again. In 1987 he was back in the UK chart, this time peaking at No.2, after the song was used in a Levi’s jeans commercial.

In 1989 he was awarded the Rhythm And Blues Foundation’s career achievement award. 1994’s Blue Night album, which featured Bobby Womack, Mick Taylor and Steve Cropper, meanwhile, secured him both a Blues Music Award and WC Handy Award for best soul or blues album. His last album, 2004’s follow-up Shining Through The Rain, captured the singer in a country soul setting on a series of ballads scribed by Steve Earle, Jackie Lomax, Barry Goldberg, Carla Olson and Earl Kit Carson, the latter behind Big Blue Diamonds, a bluesy duet with Paul Jones.

In 2005 he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, in 2007 the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame and the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, Louisiana, and in 2010 the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame. He is survived by his wife, Rosa, and 12 children and is sorely missed./o:p