Percy Sledge was born in Leighton, Alabama, in November 1941 and was working as a hospital orderly in 1965 when his former music teacher asked him to sing at a Christmas party.
He hadn’t sung in years, but the gig paid $50 so Sledge agreed to do it.
Performing with bassist Cameron Lewis and organist Andrew Wright he made up the lyrics to When A Man Loves A Woman – the first soul song ever to hit #1 on the pop charts – onstage that night.
Sledge hooked up with Quin Ivy, a local DJ and owner of Ivy’s Tune Town record shop and Quinvy Recording Studio in Sheffield, Alabama. At Ivy’s suggestion, the words to the song – which Sledge had originally titled Why Did You Leave Me? – were re-written.
With Ivy behind the boards, co-producer Marlin Greene playing guitar and studio musicians Spooner Oldham (organ), Junior Lowe (bass), Roger Hawkins (drums) and Jimmy Johnson (lead guitar) at the session, Sledge pulled out all the stops.
Afterwards, Rick Hall (owner of Fame Studios) called Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records and raved about the recording. Wexler heard a hit too but felt that Sledge hadn’t sung it clearly enough, so they cut it one more time.
Wexler also had the brass part of the song re-recorded, to remove the out-of-tune horn section on the original recording. Unfortunately, the master of the single kept the original horns – and they’re still there . . .
The song hit the charts repeatedly, going to #4 in the UK on its initial release and #2 in 1987. In the US it reached #1 in 1966.
But Sledge was no one-hit wonder, charting many other songs such as Take Time To Know Her and Warm And Tender Love for Atlantic.
He toured frequently in the US and Europe during his long career and, in 2005, was inducted into the US Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.
Sledge died of cancer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on 14 April 2015. He was 73.