Percy Sledge, 1940-2015
I don’t remember a lot about my childhood except that a lot of time was spent in transit, shuffling around in my parents’ car. The only options for music were the radio or, for longer car rides, cassette tapes and eventually CDs. My parents controlled most of these listening options so by the time I got an iPod in middle school, it felt like my first taste of creative freedom. I could choose which songs I listened to, I could skip tracks in an album, and I could make playlists. I intentionally neglected to use the shuffle feature, which I saw as constricting my newfound control, for years.
This changed when I moved to New York and, no longer having a car, missed the spontaneity that a radio station can offer. I’ve grown nostalgic for the days when someone else would dictate what I was listening to.
I miss letting go and just listening.
Engaging the shuffle feature is an exercise in random chaos, where a Bach concerto is followed by Eric Clapton. I do, of course, still skip tracks I’ve grown tired of or are not in the mood for. I shuffle through songs by Dave Brubeck, The Beatles, Nas, Art Tatum, Amy Winehouse, and The Clash.
I never shuffle through a Percy Sledge song and I listened to both “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” and “Cover Me” in the span of 20 minutes early yesterday morning before learning that the soul singer had passed away at the age of 74.
Had Sledge not recorded the deeply personal “When a Man Loves a Woman,” we would still be looking back on the career of an exceptionally talented and productive artist (his final album, The Gospel of Percy Sledge, was released in 2013). However, because of that song, and the way in which he sang it, he occupies a distinct place in the history of American soul music. This was the first song Sledge ever recorded under contract and it reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1966, selling more than a million copies and becoming Atlantic Records’ first gold record.
If that wasn’t enough, it reentered the UK singles chart in 1987 where it peaked at No. 2 after being used in an enjoyable Levi’s commercial. It then became a No. 1 hit for Michael Bolton when he recorded a faithful cover for his 1990 Grammy winning album Time, Love, & Tenderness.
It’s easy to understand why Rolling Stone named “When a Man Loves a Woman” the 53rd greatest song of all time in 2004. The descending bass line progression, a staple in many classical compositions, is paired with the quietly effecting organ by the legendary Spooner Oldham, a delayed but crucial guitar riff from Marlin Greene, and a swelling horn section at the climax. It’s a perfectly structured song where each musical element is balanced and unobtrusive, leaving room for Sledge to explode through the track with indelible and devastating power. There’s soul and there’s deep soul, but this song goes even deeper. It’s perfectly funereal.
The rest of Sledge’s catalogue is an interesting assortment of ballads and some light, country-infused songs that show his vocal versatility and musical curiosity. His last great hit, 1974’s “I’ll Be Your Everything” is the sly work of an artist who knows how to adapt to a changing decade and style without sacrificing his sound. And “Cover Me,” a personal favorite, flips the anguished narrative of “When a Man Loves a Woman” with a hopeful, heavy organ and a loving, longing plea.
I never shuffle through a Percy Sledge song because of my admiration for his expertise. He is, in my mind, the perfect soul vocalist. Despite the deliberately slow melodies the genre often features, Sledge is a rare craftsman who never indulged in languid pauses or unnecessary riffs the way many of his contemporaries did. Each time I listen to “When a Man Loves a Woman,” there’s a restlessness I can hear and, somehow, feel. Sledge powers through the song with an unrelenting drive and only one moment of breathless silence. That’s the only way to pour your heart out. That’s the only way to spill your soul.