Percy Sledge, who soared from part-time singer and hospital orderly to lasting fame with his aching, forlorn performance on the classic “When a Man Loves a Woman,” died Tuesday in Louisiana. He was 74.
Dr. William “Beau” Clark, coroner for East Baton Rouge Parish, confirmed to The Associated Press that Sledge died early Tuesday morning, about an hour after midnight, of natural causes in hospice care.
A No. 1 hit in 1966, “When a Man Loves a Woman” was Sledge’s debut single, an almost unbearably heartfelt ballad with a resonance he never approached again. Few singers could have. Its mood set by a mournful organ and dirge-like tempo, “When a Man Loves a Woman” was for many the definitive soul ballad, a testament of blinding, all-consuming love haunted by fear and graced by overwhelming emotion.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” was a personal triumph for Sledge, who seemed on the verge of sobbing throughout the production, and a breakthrough for Southern soul. It was the first No. 1 hit from Alabama’s burgeoning Muscle Shoals music scene, where Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones among others would record, and the first gold record for Atlantic Records.
Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler later called the song “a transcendent moment” and “a holy love hymn.” Sledge’s hit became a standard that sustained his long touring career in the U.S., Europe and South Africa, when he averaged 100 performances a year, and led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
It was a favorite at weddings — Sledge himself did the honors at a ceremony for musician and actor Steve Van Zandt — and often turned up in movies, including “The Big Chill,” “The Crying Game” and a 1994 Meg Ryan drama named for the song’s title.