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Fall In Love All Over Again With Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”

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Seductive, lively, celebratory, pure. It’s all too rare a singer can achieve each of these tones in one recording, never mind manage that live. But Percy Sledge achieved something positively magical when he sang “When a Man Loves a Woman” live in 1966. In a day when more and more singers are less and less part of their live performances, Sledge’s stands out as all of him managing a heartfelt, velvety delivery that’s exactly what such bold vows of devotion deserve.

The lyrics, expertly penned by Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, are a match made in heaven for Sledge’s passionate voice, who can make reciting the phone book into a romantic ballad. Even live, he puts his every breath into carrying powerful notes that sing of love that knows no bounds, and this underrated song was finally treated to some overdue credit with this chart-topping hit that has been introduced to one generation after another thanks to the love stories of those who came before, whose lives are set to the soundtrack of Sledge’s crooning.

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Percy Sledge gave a live performance of “When a Man Loves a Woman” we don’t see anymore

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“When a Man Loves a Woman” would grace the discography of several artists besides Sledge, who was the first to record it. Michael Bolton shared a successful recording that peaked at number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Before that, country singer John Wesley Ryles landed a small but solid hit with his rendition. In the ‘90s, Bette Midler managed a Top 40 hit with her cover.

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But it’s Sledge’s that set a bar that’s been hard to beat even – and especially – live. His version easily reached number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B singles charts; it performed pretty well abroad, too, with a nice peak spot at number two in 1987 on the UK Singles Chart, after a snazzy feature in a Levi’s jeans commercial. In ‘87, it could also be heard in a promotion for Platoon.

Today, it’s Sledge’s version that sits at number 53 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. No surprise, since its backstory is as gripping as Sledge’s delivery of the song itself.

The song was a miraculous labor of love

He was a powerhouse of talent that flew under the radar / Everett Collection

Credit formally goes to Lewis and Wright but Sledge was adamant he deserved credit too. The story changes a bit depending on the interview, but the general consensus is that the song was almost called “Why Did You Leave Me Baby.” Co-producer Quin Ivy fully believed a message like that would never become a hit.

We can’t know for sure, because it’s entirely possible Sledge’s delivery would’ve carried it. But the messages really are the complete opposite and just a few words really make a world of difference.

But Sledge was big on saying how it takes a village, and called “When a Man Loves a Woman” a perfect storm of talent and timing. He explained, “It wasn’t just what I had done; it was the musicians, the producer, the background singers, the right time.”

Percy Sledge reportedly had a hand in penning the song’s lyrics / YouTube screenshot

What a right time it was! Back when Sledge was a member of the Esquires, he recalled how “We were set to play a Friday night dance, and we were practicing … I was messing around on the organ when this riff came up out of nowhere. There was no one in the club but us.” So no one witnessed the musical magic close to being born.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” would be Sledge’s biggest success, a worthy triumph but just one part of a solid career that saw him inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, celebrated for his emotional, soulful songs, with a personal favorite always being “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

It’s the song you wish you could induct more than once, with millions of fans still listening online. That’s because Sledge put the effort in to make something timeless and it’s noticed as every listener appreciates just how real his singing is. “No autotune, no special effects, no assistance to vocals whatsoever and he did it ‘LIVE’ as well,” one comment online sums up. “They don’t make’em like him anymore.”

When a Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge almost had a very different feel to it / Carol M. Highsmith / Wikipedia
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