Southern soul had been a commercial force since the beginning of the decade, but its rawer, more groove-focused sound kept it trailing behind Motown’s hit-driven commercial polish. Memphis-based Stax Records netted a handful of big hits at the beginning of the ’60s – Carla Thomas’s Chantels-ish ballad “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)”; her father Rufus Thomas’s dance novelty “Walking the Dog”; a pair of funky instrumentals by the label’s house band (The Mar-Keys’ “Last Night” and Booker T. & the M.G.’s’ “Green Onions”) – but by 1966, the label still hadn’t produced a breakout artist who could rival The Supremes or Marvin Gaye. Stax’s biggest star, Otis Redding, had yet to reach the Top 20 of the pop charts. Atlantic Records up-and-comer Wilson Pickett, who recorded at Stax, had a bit more luck, hitting #13 in March with “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.).” But the singer who finally gave Southern soul its monster crossover hit was an unknown unaffiliated with the Memphis scene. Percy Sledge worked days as a hospital orderly when he recorded his debut single at Norala Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama. Atlantic quickly picked up the single, and within months “When a Man Loves a Woman” became the label’s first gold record, almost single-handedly establishing the Muscle Shoals region as a capital for soul music.
The churchy organ line that opens the song announces immediately that this is something completely different from any R&B- and soul-flavored pop hit that had come before it. That Farfisa, along with the backing choir vocals, betrays soul’s origins in gospel music, while the twangy guitar could have been ripped from a country song. Sledge’s secular testifying seems freeform and off the cuff, yet carves out a melody as indelible and resilient as any hymn or Tin Pan Alley tune. The song starts out like an ode to devotion: “when a man loves a woman / can’t keep his mind on nothing else / he’ll trade the world for the good thing he’s found.” But for all its romantic slow-dance potential, “When a Man Loves a Woman” is less about love than it is about heartbreak and self-ruin. As the song progresses, the admirable aspects of a relationship begin to warp into their carnival-mirror images. The infatuated man’s imperception of his lover’s flaws reveals itself as fatal blindness; his willingness to sacrifice deteriorates into masochism; his loyalty mutates into codependency. Sledge begins the song in the third person, singing about a generic man and woman, but the pretense of distance drops away in the bridges: “I gave you everything I had,” “I know just how he feels.” The use of “man” and “woman” also universalizes the song, making the relationship between the two feel more like the rule than an unfortunate exception. This is how love always is, Sledge seems to be singing. Even if the woman isn’t worth the pain, the man is doomed to suffer anyway. By the time the slightly out-of-tune horns show up in the final few seconds, they sound as broken as the singer’s spirit. 8
Hit #1 on May 28, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
160 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 15.75% through the Hot 100