By REBECCA SANTANA and KEVIN McGILL
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman, a desperate, soulful ode to the lengths a man will go to for the woman he loves, was his only big hit but it had staying power. When he stepped into a recording studio in 1966, he unleashed a haunting wail of loss and love that continues to touch listeners nearly 50 years later.
The song launched the former Alabama hospital orderly to fame, became a staple in movies and television and was the last tune he sang at concerts.
Aware of the song’s significance, he rarely sang it as a duet, said manager Mark Lyman, who worked with Sledge for roughly 20 years. Lyman recalled another artist once called to ask if Sledge would sing it with her. Sledge told Lyman, “Now Mark, you know that’s my song.”
The only exception Lyman remembers was a duet with Michael Bolton, whose cover of the song won him a Grammy in 1991.
Sledge died April 14 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at age 74. His family said in a statement released through Lyman that he died “peacefully” at his home after a yearlong struggle with cancer. The cause of death was liver failure, Lyman said. The coroner for East Baton Rouge Parish also confirmed the death.
A No. 1 hit in 1966, When a Man Loves a Woman was Sledge’s debut single, an almost unbearably heartfelt ballad with a resonance he never approached again. Few singers could have. Its mood set by a mournful organ and dirge-like tempo, it was for many the definitive soul ballad, a testament of blinding, all-consuming love haunted by fear and graced by overwhelming emotion.
The song was a personal triumph for Sledge, who seemed on the verge of sobbing throughout the production, and a breakthrough for Southern soul. It was the first No. 1 hit from Alabama’s burgeoning Muscle Shoals music scene, where Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones among others would record, and the first gold record for Atlantic Records.
Sledge’s hit became a standard that sustained his long touring career in the United States, Europe and South Africa and led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. It was a favorite at weddings, and often turned up in movies, including The Big Chill, The Crying Game and a 1994 Meg Ryan drama named for the song’s title.
When a Man Loves a Woman was re-released after being featured in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film Platoon in 1987 and reached No. 2 in Britain. Rolling Stone magazine later ranked it No. 53 on its list of the greatest songs of all time.
Recognizable by his wide, gap-toothed smile, Sledge had a handful of other hits between 1966 and 1968, including Warm and Tender Love, It Tears Me Up, Out of Left Field and Take Time to Know Her. He returned to the charts in 1974 with I’ll Be Your Everything.
Before he became famous, Sledge worked in the cotton fields around his hometown of Leighton in northwest Alabama and took a job in a hospital in nearby Sheffield. He also spent weekends playing with a rhythm-and-blues band called the Esquires. A hospital patient heard him singing while working and recommended him to record producer Quin Ivy.
Sledge said a girlfriend who left him for a modeling career after he was laid off from a construction job in 1965 inspired the song, but he gave the songwriting credits to two Esquires band mates, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, who helped him with it.
Lyman called it Sledge’s “signature song.”
“It was like his child. He knew that song was the song that propelled him to international stardom. It was his last song of any performance,” Lyman said.