160) Percy Sledge – “When a Man Loves a Woman”

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

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5 Comments

Filed under 08, 1966

5 responses to “160) Percy Sledge – “When a Man Loves a Woman”

  1. col1234

    it’s a masterful single, especially Sledge’s vocal, which is the epitome of desperate, tortured soul. But to appreciate the track now I first have to clean my mind of all this bric-a-brac: its relentless oversaturation on oldies radio stations, its overuse on everything from the Big Chill to various TV ads, the crap Meg Ryan movie it titled, the Michael Bolton cover, the countless tortured versions on “American Idol”. It’s like the culture has gone out of its way to kill the song.

    So I don’t go back to it much, in part because of this context, and also, I find it a bit plodding–I have to concentrate on bits like the Farfisa, as you said. But it’s a great song that hopefully another generation will discover to be fresh and new one day.

  2. I agree with col1234. It’s a great song if you can ignore everything it inspired. I just looked it up and it turns out the Michael Bolton cover was also a #1 single, and in fact many covers of earlier hits became #1s in their own right. How do you plan on treating these?

  3. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was never one of my favorites, for no particular reason. But can I just say (again) how much I love this blog? I love learning about all the context around songs and artists I know.

  4. @sam – covers that go to #1 will be given separate posts when we come to them, including separate grades (cough cough).

    @cinderkeys – thanks!

  5. GeorgeL

    I am with cinderkeys. For some reason this song just hasn’t quite moved me that way it has moved many others. And I do love soul music. I actually like some of Percy Sledge’s other songs much better.

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