Percy Sledge, singer of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the wrenching soul classic and No. 1 hit from 1966, died Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge.
Sledge’s daughter, Tanya Jones, confirmed her father’s death. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy nominee was 74.
Her father was diagnosed with liver cancer in late 2013, Jones said. After performing internationally for nearly 50 years, he gave no concerts in 2014, she said.
“He really fought,” Jones said Tuesday. “He didn’t want to leave us but he had to go.”
“When a Man Loves a Woman,” a song used in dozens of movies and commercials through the years, was Sledge’s passport to stages throughout the world.
He never tired of the tune. “Every show I do, I can’t wait to get to this song,” he said in 1995. “It’s the last one I do, but I know when I get to that, they’re always going to scream and holler and grab each other and hug and kiss.”
Sledge spent much of his time on the road. He was sitting on the floor in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in December 2004 when his wife phoned to tell he him he was to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’m just so excited, I don’t know what to do,” Sledge told The Advocate that day. “I thank God because he’s been so wonderful to me in my life and my career.”
Sledge is a member of a generation of ’60s soul stars whose music achieved classic status.
“Yeah, like me and Otis Redding and Joe Tex and Aretha (Franklin), that music is just blood-running music that’ll stay forever,” he said. “I think it’s because we did that music with our heart and soul. We wasn’t looking for money and all that. We put our work first and then the money came later.”
A native of the small town of Leighton, Alabama, Sledge grew up loving the music of Sam Cooke, the Drifters and the Platters, but he also listened to country-and-western music on the radio. The singer’s early fans included his classmates at Leighton Training School. He sang for them during recess and the prom.
In 1966, Sledge was performing with a local group called The Esquires and working as a hospital nurse when he recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman” at producers Quin Ivy and Marlin Greene’s small studio in Sheffield, Alabama. It became an international smash, one of many hits from the fertile Muscle Shoals-area studio scene.
Sledge’s other hits include “Take Time to Know Her,” “Out of Left Field” and “Warm and Tender Love.”
“People like the seriousness of my voice, the way I pronounce my words and the way I feel when I bring the words out,” Sledge said of his singing. “I’ve had so many people in the world tell me that. ‘You seem to be so serious when you sing.’ Well, that’s the only way I know how to sing a song.”
Sledge believed he deserved songwriter’s credit and royalties for “When a Man Loves a Woman.” But his bandmates in The Esquires, Cameron Lewis and Arthur Wright, have sole credit for the song.
“It was the backbone of Percy Sledge,” he said. “I really should have gotten the writer’s rights, but I gave it to Lewis and Wright because if they hadn’t hit the chord then I wouldn’t have thought of the melody.”
A lucrative copyright, “When a Man Loves a Woman” was featured in 1983’s “The Big Chill” soundtrack, Oliver Stone’s 1986 drama “Platoon,” 1992’s “The Crying Game” and 1994’s Meg Ryan-starring “When a Man Loves a Woman.” In 1987, the song became a hit in the U.K. again after it was used in a TV commercial.
Michael Bolton’s 1991 remake of “When a Man Loves a Woman” won a Grammy Award that proved controversial after the singer didn’t mention Sledge during his Grammy ceremony acceptance speech. Bolton later sent roses and a letter of apology to Sledge.
Before his recent illness, Sledge performed constantly, appearing in the U.S., Europe, Indonesia, the Caribbean and even Apartheid-era South Africa.
Although Sledge stayed busy on the concert stage, he rarely recorded after the 1970s. “Blue Night,” released in 1994, was his first album of new recordings in more than 10 years. It received a Grammy nomination and a W.C. Handy Award for best soul/blues album. “Shining Through the Rain,” a belated follow-up to “Blue Night,” arrived in 2004.
Sledge lived in Baton Rouge for 40 years, his daughter said. He moved to Louisiana after meeting his wife, Rosa, a native of the state.
In 1994, Sledge was sentenced to spend six months in a halfway house and five years on probation after pleading guilty to failing to report income on his federal taxes. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said after the sentencing, thanking the judge for leniency.
Even though the singer seldom performed in Baton Rouge, he appeared annually from 1987 to 2013 at local car dealership Gerry Lane Chevrolet’s anniversary celebrations.
“He was very humble, never put on any airs about who he was and all the tremendous things he accomplished,” Eric Lane, the company’s president, said Tuesday.
Lane and Jones both mentioned Sledge’s devotion to the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.
“He loved baseball,” the singer’s daughter said. “He loved his family. He was very kindhearted. He helped everybody he could and did a lot of charity work. He was a giver.”
Sledge had 12 children. His family will announce memorial arrangements later.