Leighton native and Muscle Shoals music icon Percy Sledge died this morning at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, according to longtime friend David Johnson. Sledge was 73.
Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman” in 1966 at Norala Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama. It reached No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B singles charts. It was No. 54 in the list of Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest songs of all time.
He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Spooner Oldham, a local musician who played a Farfisa organ in “When a Man Loves a Woman,” said he was amazed by the way Sledge nailed the song as a novice.
“He just stood at the microphone and sang great,” Oldham said. “It was really the first recording session, to my knowledge, that he did.
“That was definitely a unique voice Percy had. He was a great one.
Oldham said the Shoals had started experiencing success before Sledge’s song with such recordings as Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” but “When a Man Loves a Woman” brought the area’s recognition to another level.
“It gets a lot of credit, and rightfully so, for being atop the list of early hits,” he said. “It’s a world-famous song. Almost everyone’s heard that one.”
Oldham said Sledge never allowed fame to go to his head. He said he was at Dick Howell Barbecue Pit in Florence when Sledge walked in.
“He was just one of the regular guys there,” Oldham said. “Everyone seemed to know him. He was a good one, just a wonderful nature about him.”
David Johnson, who was a local studio owner and record producer and close friend of Sledge’s, said “When a Man Loves a Woman” epitomizes the Muscle Shoals sound.
“It really says Muscle Shoals music, and it was the first worldwide hit and gold record,” Johnson said. “Such a classic, classic record. It will outlive us all.”
Johnson said Sledge’s heart was as golden as his voice.
“He was a dear friend of mine and such a great person with the biggest heart in world,” he said. “He loved his fans, and I think they knew it.
“He was always Percy Sledge from Leighton, Alabama. He never forgot his roots and never forgot where he came from. He always said how blessed he was that he got to sing his songs all over the world. He was a fun-loving person. I loved working with him.”
Jimmy Johnson, who did engineering on “When a Man Loves a Woman,” said it sold “more records than we ever imagined.”
“It was my first million-seller and it was Atlantic’s first million seller, and it has never stopped selling worldwide,” Jimmy Johnson said.
He said Sledge was an orderly at Colbert County Hospital in Sheffield and had picked cotton in Leighton before his singing career took off.
“He turned out to be the icon for Muscle Shoals music,” Jimmy Johnson said. “No one knew the day we cut the record just how big it would get.”
Sledge was so new to singing when he initially recorded that he had to learn how to sing into a microphone during the session.
“He was so nervous — that was natural — but there was something about him,” Jimmy Johnson said. “He had a great voice, and he didn’t have any trouble reaching high notes.
“A lot of big records had already been cut in the area before Percy, but nothing ever this big. That song is a combination of Percy’s voice and those lyrics. They just drove you to it, and once you heard it you loved it.”
Jimmy Johnson remembers Sledge as a warm, humble person.
“He never lost track of where he came from,” Jimmy Johnson said. “He came a long way from picking cotton and being an orderly at the hospital to being known around the world.”
Jimmy Johnson played on Sledge’s records after that initial hit.
“He has several other top-five songs. ‘Take Time To Know Her’ and ‘Warm And Tender Love’ were big, but nothing like the first,” he said. “That song had a way of moving people. I had people tell me they would be driving down the road and hear the song on the radio and they had to pull off the road, it touched them so.
“He had a fingerprint voice, he was one of a kind. He didn’t sound like anyone else. There will never be another Percy Sledge.”