Percy Sledge, singer of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the 1966 No. 1 hit that became a soul-music classic, was remembered Tuesday as a kind and charismatic man who lit up rooms and concert stages with his unmistakable smile.
The three-hour-plus funeral service for Sledge at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker was streamed live over the Internet.
“Last week, when he slipped into eternity, heaven got a lot more soul,” said Dane Blankenship, a speaker at the service and a hospice chaplain who visited Sledge in his final days.
A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy nominee, Sledge died last week in Baton Rouge. He was 74. National and international news outlets — including the BBC, The New York Times, NPR and “CBS Sunday Morning” — reported his death.
During Tuesday morning’s visitation, Sledge’s body lay in a black coffin decorated by musical notes and a microphone. The coffin’s open lid held a 1960s-based, black-and-white rendering of the singing star.
Attendees at the service included Memphis soul star Eddie Floyd and many musicians who worked with Sledge through the decades, including members of the Houma-based Blue-Eyed Soul, Virginia’s Sunset Drive and The Aces from Shreveport.
“It’s the end of an era,” Aces trumpeter Paul Tinker said before the service.
“Every time I was standing on stage with him, I knew I was standing with a legend,” Aces singer Brenda Turner said, struggling to speak through her emotion. “He was the kindest, most gracious man I ever knew.”
Aces trombonist Donald Walters recalled Sledge’s kindness to his fans.
“Percy would still be signing autographs hours after the gig was over,” Walters said. “He was just that type of person. Never met a stranger. A genuinely good guy.”
Sledge was a joy to work with, said Johnny Palazzotto, the Baton Rouge music business veteran who booked the singer for the 2009 Baton Rouge Blues Festival. It was a rare local performance for the Alabama native who lived in Louisiana for 40 years.
Musical performers at the funeral service included The Gospel Truths, rhythm-and-blues artist Dorothy Moore and Sledge’s son Howell Sledge, who performed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Sledge’s daughter, Sanricca Sledge Lawrence, sang “Don’t Cry for Me,” a song recorded by one of her father’s favorite singers, Whitney Houston. Lawrence added a few words, saying, “I won’t cry. I’ll smile when I think of you.”
Two southwest Louisiana performers, singer Greg Martinez and another Sledge band veteran, keyboardist Bubba Boudreaux, performed one of Sledge’s hits, “Out of Left Field.”
A procession of family members, friends and fellow musicians also spoke of their love for Sledge.
“I’ve never seen the bad side of Percy, and I don’t know any fan who ever saw it,” said David Johnson, a Sheffield, Alabama-based producer who first worked with Sledge in 1968. They more recently recorded a gospel album together.
Devoted fan Frank Fletcher recalled meeting Sledge in an autograph line. After Fletcher booked the singer for a Christmas party, the Little Rock, Arkansas-based businessman told Sledge that he wanted to see him more often.
“I said, ‘Every time I open a new business, I want you to come be the star,’ ” Fletcher recalled. “I bought 13 car dealerships I really didn’t need, because I got him to come every time.”
“God created the stars,” the dressed-in-white Percy Tyrone Sledge Jr. said. “He’s got one up in the sky today, and that one is Percy Sledge, my dad.”
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