Percy Sledge, the soul singer who belted out the hit “When a Man Loves a Woman,” died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Tuesday morning. The cause of death was liver cancer, his manager Steve Green tells Rolling Stone. He was 74.
The singer sky-rocketed to the top of both the Hot 100 and R&B charts with his dramatic, heartrending ballad “When a Man Loves a Woman” – his debut single and one of Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time – in 1966. It spent 13 weeks on the Billboard pop chart, and was the first chart-topper to come out of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama music scene.
He previously performed as a member of the Esquires Combo, but his breakout success as a solo artist paved the way for several more hits, including “Warm and Tender Love,” “It Tears Me Up,” and “Out of Left Field,” among others. He scored more hits in the next decade, with 1973’s “Sunshine” and 1974’s “I’ll Be Your Everything.”
His next hit was a surprising one: “When a Man Loves a Woman” received a surge in interest after it was featured in Oliver Stone’s 1987 Vietnam War movie Platoon. It became a Number Two single in the U.K. that year and stayed on the country’s charts for 10 weeks, a notable feat since it had reached only Number Four in that country upon its initial release.
The song became an enduring hit, in part, due to the real pain in Sledge’s voice. The tune began as a pleading ballad with the Esquires, after Sledge lost both his construction job and his girl. “I didn’t have any money to go after her, so there was nothing I could do to try and get her back,” Sledge recalled of the song’s origins. Producer Quin Ivy subsequently helped him rewrite it, and Sledge later gave the songwriting credits to his Esquires bandmates. He had been working in a hospital and was performing only at small shows and frat parties around the time the song ascended the charts, according to ABC News.
Bette Midler, Michael Bolton and Esther Phillips all covered the songs and scored hits with it, with Bolton’s version reaching Number One.
Sledge was honored with the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Career Achievement Award in 1989 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
The singer toured consistently throughout his life. The BBC reports that he is survived by his wife and children.