By Don Wilcock
Percy Sledge passed away on Tuesday (April 14) from liver cancer. He recorded six songs in Muscle Shoals, Alabama on February 17, 1966, and he liked all five of the others better than he did “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
“I didn’t know anything about music,” he told me in 2004. “All I done was just sing.” But Sledge producer Quinty Ivy felt differently, and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler “went crazy, absolutely crazy about the song.” “When a Man Loves a Woman” became Atlantic Records’ first million seller. It became one of the cuts in “The Big Chill,” a film that defined ’60s soul for the generations to follow. And it unilaterally established a career for Sledge that still sustained him 38 years later when I saw him perform at Columbia-Greene Community College in April, 2004.
It was a song that almost never saw the light of day. It began with a catchy melody, a completely different set of lyrics and a title that was the polar opposite of what it would eventually become – “Why Did You Leave Me.” Sledge was lead singer in a band called the Esquires playing fraternity party gigs at Ole Miss and doing covers of Beatles hits and soul smashes like James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Wilson Picket’s “634-5789” and “Mustang Sally.” One night, Ivy who was establishing himself with a studio in Sheffield, Alabama, heard Sledge sing an original with the Esquires.