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Percy Sledge: 10 Essential Tracks

The soul legend was best known for “When a Man Loves a Woman,” but his career was filled with undiminished treasures

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Percy Sledge at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Concert. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons

Percy Sledge at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Concert. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons

Percy Sledge had plenty of big records, but nothing compared to 1966’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” his first single, first hit and lasting legacy. The song stands as the pinnacle of deep Southern soul, and the singer never attempted to escape it. Wilson Pickett dipped his toe into hard funk, but not Percy. Instead, he deepened his Southern signature, accentuating his gospel and country roots as he sang of seduction and heartbreak for discerning listeners.

Sledge maintained a loyal following during the decades when he was seemingly off the radar. Recording wasn’t entirely his thing. Following I’ll Be Your Everything, an album cut for Southern Rock imprint Capricorn in 1974, he spent a decade working soul circuits in the South, Europe and South Africa. He eventually returned to the limelight when a new generation discovered “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which appeared on film and television soundtracks and wound up re-entering the U.K. charts after it appeared in a 1987 Levi’s commercial. This resurgence culminated in 1994’s Blue Night, his first album for a major label in two decades. Despite positive notices ”” including a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album and a 1996 W.C. Handy win for Best Soul or Blues Album ”” it proved to be Sledge’s last major project.

When he returned to the stage, he continued singing his classics, a move that underscored how seminal his eight-year run at Atlantic Records was. Between 1966 and 1974, Percy made some of the finest soul ever recorded and left a discography that runs much deeper than just one single ”” something these songs prove.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” (1966)

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lp7FtJXp7k[/youtube]

“When a Man Loves a Woman” made Percy Sledge’s career, but it was also the first Southern soul record to top the Billboard Hot 100. Other R&B singles had become pop Number Ones ”” many were racked up by Ray Charles at the dawn of the Sixties ”” but Sledge’s hit opened the doors for deep soul, creating a sound others would mimic for years to come (not to mention cover, as Michael Bolton did on a faithful chart-topper from 1991). Oversaturation may have rendered the song too familiar, but nothing can diminish the power of Sledge’s performance: It’s passionate but also nuanced, his heartbreak surfacing in the quiet murmurs where it seems as if he’s gasping for air between sobs.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9aMcBs7hyk[/youtube]

Sledge’s second single serves as a sweet antidote to the sadness of his debut. It’s another plea, but this time the singer’s heart is open, not broken, as he offers his warm and tender love. The subject is lighter and so is the touch, with the band grooving along at an easy simmer and Sledge skillfully modulating his performance to radiate warmth. In a career filled with sorrowful ballads, this bit of optimism is welcome.

“It Tears Me Up” (1966)

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://youtu.be/v4hIRfQX9cw[/youtube]

On his third single, Percy Sledge returned to heartbreak. If the tempo of “It Tears Me Up” is slightly swifter than “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the anguish is just as palpable. Watching his woman walking with another man, Sledge can barely handle the pain. It’s impossible to doubt him, but the song itself seems to offer lift. Written by the soul titans Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, “It Tears Me Up” isn’t a prototypical slow-burner: The quick pace and insistent melody create a tension that makes the tune one of Sledge’s most memorable.

“Dark End of the Street” (1967)

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://youtu.be/Gj3UdRmhgvM[/youtube]

It seems that every Southern soul singer of the Sixties took a stab at “The Dark End of the Street,” the Dan Penn-Chips Moman song first recorded by James Carr. There’s never been a bad version, but Percy Sledge’s, recorded a year after Carr’s original, is among the very best. Sledge was ideally suited for the tale of star-crossed lovers: When he sings, it’s clear that he feels the weight of this stolen romance. But no matter how much it pains him, there’s nothing he can do to bring his affair out into the light.

“Cover Me” (1967)

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://youtu.be/1lE0oGYXUwY[/youtube]

Cut from the same cloth as “Warm and Tender Love,” the Eddie Hinton/Marlin Greene song “Cover Me” is another plea for love, which means it’s one of the rare Percy Sledge songs where the pleasure outweighs the pain. Sledge is still begging his lover to stay, but the very fact that the heartbreak has yet to happen gives this single a glimmer of hope, a positive vibe the organ-heavy, laidback groove mirrors.

“Take Time to Know Her” (1968)

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://youtu.be/tUOkBvxSoHw[/youtube]

Sledge’s second biggest hit, “Take Time to Know Her” is a nearly gothic tale of betrayal. The singer takes his future bride home to his mother and, with one glance, mama calls her son to her side and cautions him, “Take time to know her.” But Sledge doesn’t listen to his mama nor does he listen to his preacher ”“ he rushes into the marriage and finds his heart swiftly broken. The story is a shade overheated but not the singer’s performance: There are no dramatic runs, no testifying, just slow, mournful regret.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://youtu.be/Yx58h3tyxoA[/youtube]

Another excellent song from Greene and Hinton, “It’s All Wrong but It’s Alright” is a bit of a rarity from Sledge: It’s a song where he seems to take pleasure in his transgressions. If the singer were racked with guilt on “The Dark End of the Street,” here he seems overwhelmed by just how good being wrong feels, and that unexpected carnality gives “It’s All Wrong but It’s Alright” a kick.

“True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” (1969)

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://youtu.be/xa-QlpdSLwU[/youtube]

“True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” was Sledge’s first single to fail to reach any Billboard chart, but it stands as one of his unsung masterpieces. A smooth, natural slice of country-soul that places equal emphasis on both sides of the equation, the song is perhaps the strongest supporting evidence to Sledge’s claim that he sung a little bit of everything.

“I’ll Be Your Everything” (1974)

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://youtu.be/7-rKmDyI_3I[/youtube]

Sledge’s last hit, “I’ll Be Your Everything,” made it to 15 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1974 and it shows that he was skillful enough to navigate shifting fashions if he wanted. It’s another slow-burning ballad, one that has roots in “When a Man Loves a Woman,” but also one that’s been given an appealingly slick ’70s makeover, and has just enough strings and backing vocals to sound supple, not sappy.

“Going Home Tomorrow” (1994)

[youtube width=”640″ height=”420″]https://youtu.be/EiyNWQUaZ0s[/youtube]

This cover of the old Fats Domino tune “Goin’ Home” ”“ a pre-rock & roll R&B hit from 1952 ”“ is unlike almost anything else in Sledge’s discography. The singer rarely tackled something as greasy as New Orleans R&B and this version, goosed along by slide guitar from former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, shows that if Sledge wanted to, he could’ve rocked as hard as any other Louisiana R&B singer. He just chose to specialize in ballads and, really, with a voice like that, who could blame him?

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