Is there anyone in this country or the world, for that matter, that doesn’t recognize the voice of Percy Sledge when he starts belting out the words to “When a Man Loves a Woman. It is Valentine’s Day as I write this and this is one of the great love songs from the Sixties and maybe for all time.
Percy Sledge was born in 1940 in Leighton, Alabama. After high school, he got a job as an orderly in a local hospital and sang with a band called The Esquires at night.
The odd thing is, that the song originated in deep sorrow. Percy had just broken up with his girlfriend and wanted a song that would express his dismay at the breakup. He was singing with the Esquires in Leighton, when he asked two members of the band if they could write a song that expressed how he felt about the breakup. They were Cameron Lewis and Arthur Wright and they wrote “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It was originally to be called “Why Did You Leave Me, Baby,” but they soon changed the name. The first version of the song wasn’t bluesy enough for Percy, so he worked on it and finally got the song that we know today. Even though Percy did a lot of work on the song, he never received writing credit and in later years, argued that he wished he had pushed for that credit.
He took the song to Ivy Quinn, a disc jockey in Sheffield, Alabama, who knew people in the music business and Quinn recorded a demo in his local record studio. It passed through a couple other people before winding up at Atlantic Records, where Jerry Wexler, a producer for Atlantic said that it needed to be re-recorded on their equipment. So, it was, but Wexler wasn’t happy with the result, saying that the horns were out of tune. So, he had it recorded one more time. However, there was some kind of mixup and the original “horns out of tune” version was the one released to the public. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 100 and took just seven weeks to reach number one. It was only Atlantic Records third number one on the pop charts.
This was Percy’s only number one song, but it was a big one, hitting number one on both the pop chart and the R&B chart. He hit the Top 40 four more times and by 1969, was gone from the charts. He died of liver cancer on April 14, 2015 at the age of 74.
In 1991, Michael Bolton recorded the song and he also took it to number one. I have heard that he went personally to the Sledge family and asked them for the right to record the song. Bolton has such a soulful sound to his voice that they agreed.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” debuted on the pop charts on April 30, 1966 and spent two weeks at number one.