"When a Man Loves a Woman"
The Mysteries of Love, Lesson One
When you get right down to it, every truly important bit of life wisdom can be found on a well-stocked jukebox. Wanna know what love is? Dial up "When a Man Loves a Woman," the first single from Alabama-born soul singer Percy Sledge. It's an excellent lesson in what it means to be devoted to somebody. Hear it just once and you know Sledge, a former hospital orderly, is speaking from experience—about spending his last dime and putting up with all manner of mistreatment just to hold on to what he's got.
Sledge has said that he carried around the refrain for years before the song was written, and it's easy to see why: It's a melody made for pleading, a graceful rainbow arc that holds all the romance (and concomitant distress) a singer can muster. The famed Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler once described it as "a holy love hymn," and certainly Sledge's edge-of-tears performance has lots to do with that: He's not singing to entertain. He's testifying.
"When a Man Loves a Woman" was among the first Southern soul singles to reach the top of the pop charts; it utterly typifies the region's magical gritty aura. Though Sledge wrote most of the tune, because he wasn't savvy about the music business, he gave away song credit to two backing musicians who'd helped him refine the piece. Following its success, Sledge recorded a string of albums and successful singles for Atlantic; these are spirited affairs, invested with the unshakable sincerity that defines this gem. If the subsequent works are less prominent in the Great Big Jukebox of Knowledge, that's probably because "When a Man Loves a Woman" says so much.
Released: 1966, Atlantic
Appears On: When a Man Loves a Woman; It Tears Me Up: The Best of Percy Sledge
Next Stop: Otis Redding: Otis Blue
Book Page: 712