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Percy Sledge, the soul icon famous for the 1966 hit, When a Man Loves a Woman, died Tuesday morning at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at age 74. According to Dr. William “Beau” Clark, the coroner of East Baton Rouge Parish, Sledge died under hospice care from natural causes. However, other sources said that Sledge had been battling liver cancer since 2014, which may have led to his death.
During his lifetime, Sledge earned recognition for a number of categories in music and received many accolades, including the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award and Blues Music Award. In addition, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music, Delta Music, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was especially known for his gapped tooth smile and ability to captivate his listeners with his powerful belting of tunes, often switching to a soft, seductive quiver.
Prior to his success as a singer, Sledge, the soul icon who died at age 74, worked in his hometown of Leighton, Alabama in the cotton fields, and as a hospital nurse in the neighboring town of Sheffield. On weekends, he performed with the Esquires Combo, touring around his home state and neighboring Mississippi. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, aspiring to be a model, left him for his best friend. The break-up inspired him to create an impromptu tune at a gig, which he titled Why Did You Leave Me Baby? After hearing him sing it during work, a hospital patient referred him to music producer Quin Ivy. Ivy, upon hearing it, offered to professionally record the song, but suggested that Sledge work some more with the lyrics.
Sledge rewrote the lyrics with his fellow band members, Andrew Wright and Calvin Lewis, retitling the song as When a Man Loves a Woman. After its instant success as a Number One hit on both the pop and rhythm & blues charts, Atlantic Records signed the song onto its label with Ivy as its main producer, and helped Sledge launch his successful solo career. The song remained on top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, and in addition, held the top slot of the Billboard R&B Chart for six weeks. The hit also became internationally known, where it reached number four on the U.K. Top Ten.
Following his instant success, Sledge went on to produce subsequent hits, including Warm and Tender Love (#5 R&B, #17 Pop, 1966 ), It Tears Me Up (#7 R&B, #20 Pop, 1966 ), Out of Left Field (#25 R&B, 1967), Sudden Stop (#41 R&B, 1968), Take Time to Know Her (#6 R&B,#11 Pop, 1968), and Any Day Now (#35 R&B, 1969).
Although his career began to taper off by the 1970s, Sledge still continued to be a star in the rhythm & blues genre and performed live concert tours around the U.S. while releasing new albums. In addition to releasing additional hits, Sunshine (#89 R&B, 1973) and I’ll Be Your Everything (#15 R&B, 1974), his career-defining hit, When a Man Loves a Woman, was re-released in 1987 on the soundtrack of the award-winning war movie Platoon, where it once again reached the U.K. Top Ten. This time, it scored the number two slot. In 1991, the song was further popularized in a cover, re-recorded, and performed by pop-artist Michael Bolton. This Thursday will coincide with the 49th anniversary of his hit song’s original 1966 release. Sledge, the soul icon who died at age 74, is survived by his wife, Rosa Singleton, and his 12 children.
By Bill Ades