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Percy Sledge: 10 Essential Tracks

The soul legend was best known for “When a Man Loves a Woman,” but his career was filled with undiminished treasures

Percy Sledge

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Percy Sledge had plenty of big records, but nothing compared to 1966's "When a Man Loves a Woman," his first single, first hit and lasting legacy. The song stands as the pinnacle of deep Southern soul, and the singer never attempted to escape it. Wilson Pickett dipped his toe into hard funk, but not Percy. Instead, he deepened his Southern signature, accentuating his gospel and country roots as he sang of seduction and heartbreak for discerning listeners.

Sledge maintained a loyal following during the decades when he was seemingly off the radar. Recording wasn't entirely his thing. Following I'll Be Your Everything, an album cut for Southern Rock imprint Capricorn in 1974, he spent a decade working soul circuits in the South, Europe and South Africa. He eventually returned to the limelight when a new generation discovered "When a Man Loves a Woman," which appeared on film and television soundtracks and wound up re-entering the U.K. charts after it appeared in a 1987 Levi's commercial. This resurgence culminated in 1994's Blue Night, his first album for a major label in two decades. Despite positive notices — including a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album and a 1996 W.C. Handy win for Best Soul or Blues Album — it proved to be Sledge's last major project.

When he returned to the stage, he continued singing his classics, a move that underscored how seminal his eight-year run at Atlantic Records was. Between 1966 and 1974, Percy made some of the finest soul ever recorded and left a discography that runs much deeper than just one single — something these songs prove.

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“Take Time to Know Her” (1968)

Sledge's second biggest hit, "Take Time to Know Her" is a nearly gothic tale of betrayal. The singer takes his future bride home to his mother and, with one glance, mama calls her son to her side and cautions him, "Take time to know her." But Sledge doesn't listen to his mama nor does he listen to his preacher – he rushes into the marriage and finds his heart swiftly broken. The story is a shade overheated but not the singer's performance: There are no dramatic runs, no testifying, just slow, mournful regret.

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“It’s All Wrong but It’s Alright” (1968)

Another excellent song from Greene and Hinton, "It's All Wrong but It's Alright" is a bit of a rarity from Sledge: It's a song where he seems to take pleasure in his transgressions. If the singer were racked with guilt on "The Dark End of the Street," here he seems overwhelmed by just how good being wrong feels, and that unexpected carnality gives "It's All Wrong but It's Alright" a kick.

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“True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” (1969)

"True Love Travels on a Gravel Road" was Sledge's first single to fail to reach any Billboard chart, but it stands as one of his unsung masterpieces. A smooth, natural slice of country-soul that places equal emphasis on both sides of the equation, the song is perhaps the strongest supporting evidence to Sledge's claim that he sung a little bit of everything.

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“I’ll Be Your Everything” (1974)

Sledge's last hit, "I'll Be Your Everything," made it to 15 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1974 and it shows that he was skillful enough to navigate shifting fashions if he wanted. It's another slow-burning ballad, one that has roots in "When a Man Loves a Woman," but also one that's been given an appealingly slick '70s makeover, and has just enough strings and backing vocals to sound supple, not sappy.

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“Going Home Tomorrow” (1994)

This cover of the old Fats Domino tune "Goin' Home" – a pre-rock & roll R&B hit from 1952 – is unlike almost anything else in Sledge's discography. The singer rarely tackled something as greasy as New Orleans R&B and this version, goosed along by slide guitar from former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, shows that if Sledge wanted to, he could've rocked as hard as any other Louisiana R&B singer. He just chose to specialize in ballads and, really, with a voice like that, who could blame him?

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