Percy Sledge’s very first recording was far and away his biggest, but what a recording it was. The yearning, churchy ballad “When a Man Loves a Woman” was a Number One smash in 1966, and the song has enjoyed routine revivals in commercials, on soundtracks and in the variably talented hands of tribute singers from Bette Midler to Michael Bolton.
Sledge, recording for Atlantic Records in the label’s late-Sixties heyday, had his second biggest hit with “Take Time to Know Her,” which just missed the Top Ten in 1968. A superb match with the soulful material of songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (“Dark End of the Street”), Sledge had a talent for putting his own stamp on familiar songs, including Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.”
But after that initial flurry, recording opportunities dwindled for the “Golden Voice of Soul.” He never left the road, however, and he recently released his first album in ten years. True to the artist’s free-ranging tastes, Shining Through the Rain features songs by Steve Earle and the Bee Gees. Percy Sledge lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
What was your reaction to the news that you’d been inducted into the Hall of Fame?
Believe it or not, I was at the airport, trying to come from New York back to Baton Rouge. I made me a comfortable seat up by the wall, and I plugged in my cell phone to charge it up. My wife called and said, “Guess what? You’ve been inducted.” I said, “You’re kidding,” and she said, “For real!” I just started floating on cloud nine. It was the same way I felt when I got my Grammy in 1966.
Had you thought about whether you deserved to be inducted?
Well, Jerry Lee Lewis is a good friend, and, when he went in, it went through my mind about me being inducted. I was praying some day I’d get in, especially while I was still alive. Guys my age — so many great guys still haven’t been inducted. I’m just glad I’m able to celebrate with my lovely wife, Rose, and my kids. I have twelve, and fifteen grandchildren.
What songs will you play at the ceremony?
Well, definitely “When a Man Loves a Woman.” But we had about seven or eight big hits in a row . . . If we did a second song, it probably would be “Take Time to Know Her.”
How many couples have you heard from over the years about your music and what it means to them?
Oh, so many, all over the world. I’ve had people come onstage with their kids, their husbands and wives, crying, telling me stories about my songs. In Europe, Africa, everywhere. That’s another great feeling — fans that love you so much and you love them back the way I do. They call me the Legend of Slow Soul, and all that. It all points toward them.
A lot of the songs you recorded had been huge hits by other artists. How did you approach making them your own?
Most singers have their idols. I remember Elvis Presley when I was a kid. When I was about sixteen, I always said I wanted to do “Love Me Tender.” There are so many idols I’ve loved. I said if I ever got to be an artist, I wanted to do these songs. And other people doing my songs, I feel happy for them, too. Like when Michael Bolton did “When a Man Loves a Woman,” I was very impressed.
You had the good fortune of working with the great songwriting team of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.
I had the great opportunity to work with some of the greatest artists — the Beach Boys, the Temptations, the Four Tops. Otis Redding. Wilson Pickett. Stevie Wonder. So many great singers. And don’t forget Clarence Carter!
I understand you were a hospital nurse before you started singing.
I was an orderly for about seven years. I was always singing to my patients. That was another thing I enjoyed doing. The doctors always wanted me to sing, and they told me they’d like me to be a doctor, that they’d help me as much as they could. They were crazy about me there.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” was your very first record. Looking back, were you ever disappointed you never matched that kind of success?
Every time I went into the studio, I always sung with my heart. If it came out as strong, as good, as powerful as that to my fans, then I was satisfied. I never slacked. I always did all the songs the same way as the first. Of course, every artist would like to have another record like that. In the history of music, I don’t think there’s ever been two of those.
The song was often revived. Were you properly compensated?
As far as I know. Like I say, I’m a country boy. I never knew much about business. But I’ve been made happy. The TV and commercials have been very fortunate for me and my career. And Atlantic Records has always been wonderful to me. I don’t think I could have chosen a better record company.
People often call your music “country soul”? Does that sound about right to you?
Country and soul music, there’s a thin line between the two anyway. A lot of my fans actually thought I was white. A lot of them have told me that just recently. They say they’d never seen a picture of me. I play the country places all over, and a lot of them, they really thought I was a white guy. “Take Time to Know Her,” “Cover Me” — those songs are really in a country flavor, you know?