10 Best Covers of Percy Sledge's 'When a Man Loves a Woman' - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

10 Best Covers of Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’

Hear Bette Midler, Frank Ocean and a pre-teen Ryan Gosling rework the Southern soul classic

Percy Sledge

Percy Sledge

Val Wilmer/Getty

An instant standard, the late Percy Sledge's debut single and greatest hit, "When a Man Loves a Woman," has been covered again and again over the past half-century: as a heartsick country tune, as a schmaltzy torch song, as lighter-waving rock & roll, as a jazz instrumental and even as a bizarre vaudeville/garage-rock hybrid. Here are 10 of the most notable versions.

Esther Phillips

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Esther Phillips Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Esther Phillips, “When a Woman Loves a Man” (1966)

As "Little Esther," she'd scored three Number One hits at the age of 14 – but that had been back in 1950, and the 30-year-old Esther Phillips had gone through a decade of drug addiction and commercial failure before she'd re-emerged with 1962's "Release Me." Boosted by an endorsement from the Beatles, she scored another hit in 1965 by covering their "And I Love Her" as "And I Love Him"; she applied the same gender-flipping trick to her world-weary version of Percy Sledge's song, which entered the R&B chart just six weeks after "When a Man Loves a Woman."

Eddie Harris

SAN FRANCISCO - 1980: Saxophonist Eddie Harris performs onstage in 1980 at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Tom Copi

Eddie Harris (1966)

Most instrumental covers of "When a Man Loves a Woman" play it pretty straight. Not the version by jazz saxophonist Harris, which opened his 1966 album The Tender Storm. He strips the song down to a handful of melodic fragments and a funky little riff or two, propelled by hard-bop pianist Cedar Walton, and reshuffles them into a six-minute jam. Harris's version marked the beginning of his engagement with soul music and of his experiments with the Varitone, an electronic effects unit that let him tweak the sound of his sax.

Mae West

1932: American actress Mae West, born Mary Jane West (1893 - 1980), in a relaxing pose. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

John Kobal Foundation/Getty

Mae West (1966)

The perennially overripe sexpot Mae West was in her seventies when she recorded the album Way Out West, a very strange collection of then-contemporary hits on which the former film star was backed up by a garage-rock band called Somebody's Chyldren. Her take on "When a Man Loves a Woman" is as campy as you'd guess, but her slightly off-key delivery reaches back to her roots in vaudeville and pre-amplification theater: Check out the way she shouts and shimmies down from those high notes.

Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton (1971)

The great almost-lost singer of the early-Sixties Greenwich Village folk scene, Dalton had a gorgeously cracked voice with the clarity of a trumpet. Uninterested in conforming to anyone else's idea of what she should do with her talents, she only made two studio albums, and her unnerving version of "When a Man Loves a Woman" appeared on the second, 1971's In My Own Time. The band behind her is tight and swaying, but Dalton toys with the song's words and rhythms, altering it into the expression of a terrible, personal wound.

John Wesley Ryles

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of John Wesley Ryles Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

John Wesley Ryles (1976)

"When a Man Loves a Woman" was something of a comeback record for country singer John Wesley Ryles, who'd had a smash with "Kay" in 1968 but then drifted out of Nashville for most of the early Seventies. His cover of the soul standard gained Ryles some traction on the country charts, and the next year he followed it with a much bigger hit, "Once in a Lifetime Thing." It also featured a sly lyrical change: Ryles tweaked Sledge's line "tryin' to hold on to your heartless love" to "your high-class love."

Bette Midler

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bette Midler Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Bette Midler (1979)

One of the highlights of Midler's role as a doomed Sixties rock star in 1979's The Rose is her roaring, brassy onstage performance of "When a Man Loves a Woman," preceded by a rambling monologue about love and heartache – she sings it very much in the style of Janis Joplin, on whom her character was loosely based. Released as the first single from The Rose's soundtrack (yes, before the title track), it became a minor hit.

Michael Bolton

Michael Bolton at taping of his PBS- VH1 special on 1/8/93 in Chicago,Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)


Michael Bolton (1991)

Pretend, for a moment, that it's not the Number One record from 1991 that won Bolton a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance; pretend it's a blue-eyed soul obscurity by somebody named, say, Michael Notlob, and hear it with fresh ears. The singer's still aiming for the rafters, bellowing and chewing the scenery, but the song's essential power endures. Bizarre factoid: In 1979 and 1980, Bolton was in a hard-rock band called Blackjack – and the year after they broke up, an unrelated group called Jack Grayson and Blackjack had a Top 20 country hit with their own version of "When a Man Loves a Woman."

Barbara Mandrell

Barbara Mandrell (1991)

Mandrell's torchy rendition of "When a Man Loves a Woman" is cut from (a slightly twangier version of) the same cloth as Michael Bolton's – Bolton actually co-wrote another song on The Key's in the Mailbox, the album for which she recorded it. But Mandrell had been an aficionado of deep Southern soul from the get-go: Her first big single was a 1969 cover of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)," which she swiftly followed with a cover of Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman – Do Right Man."

Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling (1991)

Before "hey girl," before The Believer, before even The Mickey Mouse Club, Ryan Gosling was a performer at Mormon talent shows – like this one, filmed by an audience member when Gosling was 10 or 11 years old. Only a half-minute fragment of Gosling's proto-American Idol rendition of "When a Man Loves a Woman" has survived, but we do also get to see him and his sister Mandi dancing fairly impressively to C&C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now."

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean, “Non-Stop” (2011)

Before Christopher Breaux started going by the name Frank Ocean, he recorded a mountain of tracks that were eventually released as the mixtape The Lonny Breaux Collection. "Non-Stop" is his update of "When a Man Loves a Woman" for the 21st century. Over a loop of Percy Sledge's original recording (modified by producer J.R. Rotem), Ocean sings a melody of his own about tormented, one-sided romance – a variation on Sledge's "sleeping out in the rain" worst-case scenario.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.