Soul legend Percy Sledge has died

The legendary would singer Percy Sledge has died.

You mentioned the name Percy Sledge to anyone in the street and most will only know him for his international hit When a Man Loves a Woman, but there was more to Percy than that.

He was born in Leighton, Alabama and had a number of jobs working on local farms near his home. He then began singing gospel music with his cousin, the R&B singer Jimmy Hughes who used to record at the Muscle Shoals studio in the early sixties. In 1964 Jimmy took his band, The Esquires, on the road and Percy often tagged along. He occasionally sang some backing vocals and eventually took over as lead singer but he had no desire at that time to turn professional, as he recalled years later, “It was all natural talent, I had no training at all. We all loved music and played at the weekends for some extra cash.”

One Friday night in 1965, two members of the Esquires, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright came up with a tune. Andrew started playing the changes, the chord progression,” recalled Lewis, “We all liked what he came out with but assumed he wouldn’t remember it after that night, but the next day he began playing it again so Calvin started writing some lyrics and gave it the working title Why Did You Leave Me,” and began including it in their live sets.

When Percy heard it he added some lyrics based on a real life experience of a girl called Lizz King who left him for a modelling job. Now interestingly Percy’s name does not appear on the writing credits. According to Sledge, he claimed he co-wrote the song with his bandmates Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, but let them have sole composer credits, since they gave him the opportunity to sing his heart out. Whether Sledge was acting out of the goodness of his heart or didn’t realise what it meant to get a writing credit is a matter of debate, but it had huge implications, resulting in a windfall for Lewis and Wright, who get the royalties every time it is played.

Professional and sharp-eared musicians may well have noticed that the horns on the track are out of tune and when the original track was sent to the head of Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler he spotted it too and sent it back to be ‘fixed’ but the ‘fixed’ version never got released. David Hood, the bass player in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section explained to Song Facts, “Wexler thought the horns on the original version were out of tune – and they were – and he wanted them to change the horns. They went back in the studio and changed the horns, got different horn players to play on it. But then the tapes got mixed up and Atlantic put out their original version. So that’s the hit.”

The song reached number one in the USA and number four in the UK but in 1987, following its use in a Levi’s TV commercial the song was re-issued and zoomed to number two behind another re-issued Atlantic classic Stand By Me by Ben E. King.

Michael Bolton covered the song in 1991 and again it reached the UK top 10.

In 1994 released an album called Blue Night and 10 years later released Shining Through the Rain which led to him being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2014 Sledge contracted liver cancer and died at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the age of 74. Many sources will say he was 73 but he was born in November 1940.

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