Percy Sledge may have been a one hit wonder, but what a hit it was

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Percy Sledge has died, at age 74, having live out his golden years as a so-called one hit wonder – a title that seems to have an air of disappointment about it.

But why? After all, we’re talking about a lightning-bolt song, one that accomplishes so much so quickly that it never needs a follow up. And “When a Man Loves A Woman” — recorded nearly 50 years before Percy Sledge’s death, on April 16, 1966 at Sheffield, Alabama’s Norala Sound Studio — certainly fits the bill.

And there’s a reason for that ageless feel. Percy Sledge recorded it with Muscle Shoals legends Spooner Oldham, Roger Hawkins and Marlin Greene, using a chord progression reminiscent of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” Simultaneously romantic and unfulfilled, it’s a song that can bring you low — but also one that rides with you to dizzying heights. Sledge says whatever you want him to say on this one.

In so doing, the Leighton, Ala., native elevated what we thought of the genre — setting itself apart with every anguished, passionate stanza from novelty knock-offs like “Ice, Ice Baby” or “Macarena.” Other one-hit wonders were designed, it seems, for disposability. Not this one. Still others were simply too specific, and fail to translate to successive generations like Sledge’s side. Era-defining music, disco or grunge or the first flowerings of MTV, quickly fades. Meanwhile, tracks by Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon or Minnie Riperton are too closely linked to their doomed singers.

Each no doubt fits the description, often because they were so popular for a time as to be maddening, but they lack the transformative quality of “When A Man Loves a Woman.”

The only person it didn’t change, it seemed, was Percy Sledge. He sang and sang and sang this song, for decades after Quin Ivy, an Alabama-based producer, pulled him off a tour with a Southern soul vocal group called the Esquires to record it. Sledge quit his day job, working as a hospital orderly in Sheffield, not long after the tape found its way to the legendary Atlantic Records mogul Jerry Wexler — who heard the track, and reportedly told partner Ahmet Ertegun: “Our billing for the summer is in the bag.”

It still is. Sledge toured incessantly, playing more than 100 nights a year, garnering new attention for what became a never-ending re-packaging of his best work, including a favorite from 1992 called It Tears Me Up: The Best of Percy Sledge. You can stop with the first one, though, the one he concluded every concert with until Percy Sledge was done with the road.

“When A Man Loves A Woman,” credited to writers Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, is its own oasis of cool love and cooler longing. A song so good that Percy Sledge charted with it twice, in 1966 and then again in 1987 after appearing in a Levi commercial, “When A Man Loves a Woman” has withstood assaults by both Michael Bolton (who went to No. 1 in 1991) and Bette Midler (a No. 35 hit in 1980). This pleading, soulful ballad powers through even their mawkishly over-the-top assassination attempts. Aaron Neville, on the other hand, did it justice. But nobody owned it like Percy Sledge did.

He was this song, and this song was him. We hate it when one-hit wonders — think of, say, Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes subsequently working with Christina Aguilera — try different things. We want them to remain as they have always been, and Percy Sledge (bless him) never, ever let us down.

Sledge actually had four other Top 40 charters: 1966’s “Warm and Tender Love” (No. 17) and “It Tears Me Up” (No. 20); 1967’s “Love Me Tender” (No. 40); and 1968’s “Take Time to Know Her” (No. 11). Alas, he never made another record as great. More importantly, he never made an eye-rolling sequel or a pandering genre-jumper. Percy Sledge just kept singing this song, right up until the end.

This one hit was a wonder, indeed.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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