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Percy Sledge

Though not the author of probably thee greatest love ballads of all time, `When A Man Loves A Woman’ (that was down to fellow Esquires men Calvin Lewis & Andrew Wright), R&B/soul singer PERCY SLEDGE was groomed to become the next WILSON PICKETT, SAM COOKE or OTIS REDDING. Combining Percy’s ardent, intense pleas and a proclamation of love’s eternal endurance, the No.1 song from 1966 quickly became a hallowed soul staple and a benchmark for every aspiring balladeer. That included a repeat prescription for poodle-maned howler MICHAEL BOLTON, who also took the song to the top of the US charts in 1991 – the song was that good! By this time, SLEDGE’s career had ironically slipped downhill.
Another soul legend to begin his singing career in the church, former hospital nurse PERCY SLEDGE (born November 25, 1940, Leighton, Alabama, USA) moved into the secular music world in the mid-60s as part of Sheffield’s Southern soul outfit, The Esquires. With this vocal group going nowhere fast, Percy (younger cousin of soulster JIMMY HUGHES) was introduced to local disc jockey/record producer Quin Ivy, whose Midas touch (alongside Marlin Greene) helped the singer springboard his landmark debut single, `When A Man Loves A Woman’ to the top of the Billboard charts in May ’66. As well as hiring Spooner Oldham for the sombre Farfisa organ segue, Ivy roped in a handful of Muscle Shoals musicians for Atlantic Records. It announced to the globe, the arrival of yet another rich talent from the ever fertile American south; SLEDGE had always maintained he co-wrote the song with the title as “Why Did You Leave Me Baby”.
Follow-up, `Warm And Tender Love’, proved the ballad was no mercurial one-off, reaching the Top 20 and arriving on the back of a whole Top 40 album’s worth of heartfelt romantic testament, named to cash-in on his debut hit WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN (1966) {*7}. Working with the cream of country-soul writers such as DAN PENN, the aforementioned Oldham and a raft of others, the big man put his heart and soul into `You Fooled Me’, `Success’ and `When She Touches Me (Nothing Else Matters)’.
Having secured a further Top 20 hit with `It Tears Me Up’, the apparent realisation that Percy was just a puppet in the production hands of Quin was probably the factor in his quick-fire sophomore set WARM & TENDER SOUL (1967) {*7} stalling at No.136. Still, the soul singer’s renditions of `You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’, `That’s How Strong My Love Is’, `Try A Little Tenderness’, `I Stand Accused’ and ELVIS’s `Love Me Tender’, were convincing enough to critics then and now.
Increasingly, however, the man’s chart placings failed to reflect the quality of his work. While his superior version of the Oldham/Chips Moman classic `The Dark End Of The Street’ (from 1967’s THE PERCY SLEDGE WAY {*6}) somehow never made it on to 7-inch vinyl, SLEDGE did score one further Top 20 hit in spring ‘68 with the title track to his fourth album, TAKE TIME TO KNOW HER {*6}.
Always a dependable gospel singer, there were two further LPs for Atlantic: 1970’s Dutch-only MY SPECIAL PRAYER {*6} – featuring minor US hits, from the title track to `Any Day Now’ – and the live in Luxurama, Cape Town offering PERCY SLEDGE IN SOUTH AFRICA (1970/71) {*5} became sell-outs overseas.
While not attempting as daring a marriage as say, RAY CHARLES, SLEDGE was one of the most subtle interpreters of the link between country and soul. Having already covered KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s `Help Me Make It Through The Night’ as an unrewarding single in 1970,
SLEDGE made his mark on a re-take of CHARLIE RICH’s `Behind Closed Doors’, as a comeback loomed. By this point, however, his career was in such a commercial decline, even after signing to Phil Walden’s Southern rock bastion Capricorn, he could only manage one last minor title track hit its parent set, I’LL BE YOUR EVERYTHING (1974) {*5}. There was no flashpoint either for 1983’s poorly-promoted PERCY! {*4}.
Although SLEDGE was duly dogged by ill health, he made a successful living on the golden oldies circuit over the forthcoming decades. His famous debut single was resurrected in ‘87 when it hit the UK Top 5 all over again after being used in a Levi jeans ad. To `Keep The Fire Burning’, as in the title of the opening cut on his comeback set, WANTED AGAIN (1989) {*4}, there was little hope that `For The Good Times’ or `Hey Good Lookin’’ were going to stir up an audience looking to rap and hip hop for their fix.
In 1994, Percy released his first new material in just over half a decade by way of BLUE NIGHT {*6}, a blues album featuring guest spots by the likes of BOBBY WOMACK, MICK TAYLOR and Mikael Rickfors; his good friend CARLA OLSON supplied two songs, `Why Did You Stop’ and `The Grand Blvd.’, while other gritty highlights came courtesy of the BEE GEES’ `Your Love Will Save The World’ and the mercurial Motown moper `I Wish It Would Rain’. Fast forward a decade and Percy was pulling the same moves for 2004’s SHINING THROUGH THE RAIN {*5}.
Inducted into Hall of Fames from Rock and Roll in 2005 to Louisiana and Alabama equivalents in the years after, he released no further records as a solo artist. A father of 12 children through two marriages, it was indeed a sad time for the family (and lovers of proper R&B music) that Percy Tyrone Sledge died of liver cancer on April 14, 2015.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/BG-MCS // rev-up MCS Apr2015

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