Born November 25, 1940, in Leighton, AL; married; wife's name, Rosie. Addresses: Home--Baton Rouge, LA. Management--Artists International Management Inc., 9850 Sandalfoot Blvd., Suite 458, Boca Raton, FL 33428. Record company--Virgin, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
Percy Sledge's best-known hit, "When a Man Loves a Woman," was first released in 1966 but continued to keep the soul performer in the headlines a quarter of a century later. The classic single, which was the first soul recording to reach Number One on the pop charts, became his most successful release. In 1987 its appearance on the soundtrack of Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War, revived both the song and Sledge's career for a new generation of listeners. Four years later its impassioned lyrics were sung by Top 40 singer Michael Bolton, and "When a Man Loves a Woman" again soared to the top of the charts. Bolton earned a Grammy Award for his version but failed to mention Sledge in his acceptance speech at the cermony; Bolton took heat for his oversight from those who considered recognition for Sledge as a passionate soul vocalist long overdue.
Another recording by Sledge became mired in controversy in 1992 when the teen singing group New Kids on the Block appeared in court to answer charges that a 1990 Number One single they co-wrote for Tommy Page, "I'll Be Your Everything," was remarkably similar in parts to Sledge's 1974 hit of the same name. Sledge, however, did not allow all of the negative press surrounding his early work to stop him from releasing Blue Night, a comeback album on a French record label, in 1994. The album was noted for its contributions from a host of guest musicians, including rhythm and blues singer Bobby Womack and former Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor.
Sledge was born on November 25, 1940, in the rural farming area of Leighton, Alabama. As a child he helped his family with farming chores, and the backbreaking work convinced Sledge to dream of a less arduous way of earning a living. He began singing in local bands when still a teenager, and at the age of 20 joined a group called the Esquires Combo. The act--known in the area for its covers of songs by the Beatles and Smokey Robinson--became enormously popular in both Alabama and Mississippi and could often be found playing on college campuses in the early 1960s. Yet Sledge was still holding down a day job as a hospital orderly at Colbert County Hospital near Leighton and was barely making ends meet. He also performed with the choir at the local Gallillee Baptist Church.
In 1965 Sledge's former music teacher invited him to perform at a Christmas party. The $50 fee helped Sledge entice his friends, bass player Cameron Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, to join him. At the time, Sledge was depressed about a woman with whom he had been romantically involved, thinking she was dating someone else. "I had a couple of Jack Daniels, and my eyes were as big as hen eggs. I was feeling light as a feather, and I just wanted to speak my mind," Sledge recounted in Rolling Stone in 1988. As he sang, he began pouring out the heart-wrenching lyrics to a track he called "Why Did You Leave Me." Later, in a better mood, he polished the song into "When a Man Loves a Woman."
A friend convinced Sledge to contact Quin Ivy, a record- store owner and producer in Sheffield, Alabama. Ivy had been a disc jockey in Memphis, knew his way around the music business, and owned a recording studio. Inside Ivy's Tune Town record store, Ivy asked Sledge to sing for him on the spot, and Sledge obliged. Shortly thereafter, Sledge found himself in a recording studio for the first time in his life.
"When a Man Loves a Woman" was cut early in 1966 in Ivy's Quinvy Recording Studio with the help of musicians borrowed from another Alabama recording enterprise, Rick Hall's Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals. Ivy and Marlin Greene produced the cut, with Greene doubling as the session's guitar player. Other local musicians helping out in the studio were Junior Lowe on bass, Spooner Oldham on organ, Roger Hawkins on drums, and Jimmy Johnson on lead guitar. Reportedly, Hall called Atlantic Records President Jerry Wexler and told him about the session and its electrifying result; Wexler was sent a tape and soon Atlantic had signed Sledge to a contract. Sledge also needed a manager, and a professional by the name of Phil Walden, who had worked with Otis Redding, stepped into the picture. Unfortunately, Sledge's new manager could not rectify the singer's regrettable decision to give songwriting credit to Lewis and Wright.
"When a Man Loves a Woman" made its first appearance on the charts on April 9, 1966, and by the end of May was the Number One song in the United States. Sledge's single was also a hit overseas. A full-length album of the same name was released, and within a few years Sledge had become an enormously popular soul singer.
Although none of his subsequent records achieved the success of his first, Sledge's songs were nonetheless modest hits. Atlantic released "Warm and Tender Love" in July of 1966, and the song reached Number 17; "It Tears Me Up" debuted in October of the same year. "Baby, Help Me" and "Out of Left Field" were both released in early 1967, followed by four more throughout the year. "Take Time to Know Her" became Sledge's best-selling single after "When a Man Loves a Woman," reaching Number 11 after its release in March of 1968. The decade closed with three more efforts by Sledge--"Sudden Stop," "My Special Prayer," and "Any Day Now"--that made respectable showings on the soul charts.
Sledge's success catapulted him onto a world stage. Major concert tours helped spark record sales and bring new audiences to Sledge's tunes and no-holds-barred vocal delivery. In the summer of 1970 the singer traveled to South Africa to give performances and make a concert film entitled Soul Africa. Many black performers had been officially boycotting the country since 1965 because of its racist policies of apartheid, and at the time Sledge was criticized for traveling and performing there. Controversy marked his stay.
He had been booked to perform only for black crowds at the specific directive of the South African government, but during his first shows, white teenagers in fez hats and black makeup attempted to gain entry. Finally, the authorities allowed Sledge and his management to schedule some performances for white audiences during his tour. In a 1971 interview with Orde Coombs for the New York Times, the singer defended his tour against critics: "I went to entertain all those people who buy my records, the people who keep me in bread."
In the early 1970s Sledge's career lost some of its early momentum. His last recorded single for Atlantic was "Sunshine," released in 1973. The next year Sledge signed with Capricorn Records, a label headed by his manager, Phil Walden. In November of 1974 Sledge released "I'll Be Your Everything," a song that reached Number 15 on the soul charts but was also his last to place in the Top 100 for over a decade. In 1992 the single would became the centerpiece of a legal battle in U.S. District Court in New York. It had been written for Sledge by George Soule, and the company that had purchased its copyright charged that pop performer Tommy Page, along with two members of the pop group New Kids on the Block, had lifted parts of the melody of the original Sledge hit. All three composers claimed never to have heard either the Sledge song or subsequent remakes by other performers. A jury acquitted the defendants based on insufficient evidence.
The revival of Sledge's performing career began in 1987 when director Oliver Stone selected "When a Man Loves a Woman" for the soundtrack of his Vietnam War-era film, Platoon. The song was also re-released as a single overseas and reached Number Two on Billboard magazine's Hits of the World chart. Sledge received further recognition in 1987 by performing on the NBC television program Saturday Night Live.
In 1989 Sledge became the first recipient of the R&B Foundation's Career Achievement Award. The singer was also in the news in early 1992 when popular ballad crooner Michael Bolton, often criticized for straining to emulate the vocal styles of African American singers, won a Grammy Award for his cover of "When a Man Loves a Woman." Bolton, in his elation over the award, never once mentioned the man who originally made the song famous. Bolton was pilloried in the press for the oversight and made a point to express gratitude to Sledge in subsequent interviews as well as in a letter to him. Bolton wrote, "I have always felt that your performance was the element that made a great song a truly classic record and a standard."
In the early 1990s Sledge signed a three-record deal with a new label, and his first full-length album since the early 1970s was released in 1994. Entitled Blue Night, the album earned praise from the man who helped propel Sledge to his early success, Jerry Wexler. Wexler wrote the liner notes to the comeback album, which appeared on France's Sky Ranch Records. The label is devoted to releasing recordings by American rhythm and blues artists; it entered into a distribution deal with Virgin Records for Blue Night.
Sledge recorded Blue Night in a Los Angeles studio, a first for him, and was joined by a host of other performers for the session. Contemporary rhythm-and-blues singer Bobby Womack and former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor were guest musicians, and Bee Gees Barry and Robin Gibb and Swedish singer Mikael Rickfors--former Hollies vocalist--also contributed tracks. In addition, Blue Night contains Sledge and Rickfors's duet on a cover of "I Wish It Would Rain," originally recorded by the Temptations.
A major concert tour throughout Europe was scheduled to coincide with Blue Night's release, but plans were changed when Sledge pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion that summer. He failed to report $260,000 in income earned between 1987 and 1989 and was sentenced to serve six months in a halfway house. Acknowledging that he could have faced 15 years in prison, Sledge commented at his sentencing, "Thank you, Jesus. I appreciate what the court has done for me." Sledge's fans around the world were also grateful.
by Carol Brennan
Percy Sledge's Career
Worked as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital, near Leighton, AL, in the early 1960s; began singing career with the Esquires Combo, Muscle Shoals, AL; launched solo career with single "When a Man Loves a Woman," 1966; signed with Capricorn Records, 1974; released comeback album, Blue Night, Sky Ranch Records, 1994.
Percy Sledge's Awards
"When a Man Loves a Woman" named one of the "best 100 singles of the last 25 years" by Rolling Stone magazine, 1988; first recipient of Career Achievement Award, R&B Foundation, 1989; five gold records and two platinum records.
- Selective Works
- Singles; on Atlantic, except where noted "When a Man Loves a Woman," 1966.
- "Warm and Tender Love," 1966.
- "It Tears Me Up," 1966.
- "Baby, Help Me," 1967.
- "Out of Left Field," 1967.
- "Love Me Tender," 1967.
- "What Am I Living For," 1967.
- "Just out of Reach," 1967.
- "Cover Me," 1967.
- "Take Time to Know Her," 1968.
- "Sudden Stop," 1968.
- "My Special Prayer," 1969.
- "Any Day Now," 1969.
- "Sunshine," 1973.
- "I'll Be Your Everything," Capricorn, 1974.
- Albums When a Man Loves a Woman, Atlantic, 1966.
- When a Man Loves a Woman (The Ultimate Collection), Atlantic, 1987.
- It Tears Me Up: The Best of Percy Sledge, Rhino, 1992.
- Blue Night, Sky Ranch/Virgin, 1994.
- Best of Percy Sledge, Atlantic.
January 27, 2004: Sledge's album, 20 Best of Percy Sledge, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_7/index.jsp, January 29, 2004.
December 2004: Sledge was named for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the United States. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, December 13, 2004.
March 14, 2005: Sledge was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/03/15/music.rockhall.ap/index.html, March 15, 2005.
- Bronson, Fred, Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard Publications, 1985.
- Murrells, Joseph, compiler, The Book of Golden Discs: The Records That Sold a Million, Barrie and Jenkins Ltd., 1978.
- Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St.
- Martin's, 1974.
- Periodicals Billboard, April 11, 1987; April 18, 1987; June 13, 1992; June 27, 1992; August 27, 1994; April 22, 1995.
- Detroit Free Press, July 2, 1994.
- Entertainment Weekly, June 2, 1995.
- New York Times, June 27, 1971.
- People, April 25, 1994.
- Rolling Stone, September 8, 1988.
- USA Today, August 18, 1988.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by Artists International Management Inc., 1995.