We’ve all heard his signature voice singing his signature song. On April 14, soul singer Percy Sledge—best known for his 60s smash hit “When a Man Loves a Woman”—passed away in his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after a battle with liver cancer. He was 74.
His was the storybook tale of an artist being discovered. Growing up in Leighton, Alabama, Sledge grew up working in the cotton fields, then worked as a hospital orderly during the week while performing weekend gigs throughout the Southeast with a local band called The Esquires. A former patient of his introduced him to a mutual friend, producer Quin Ivy, who was highly instrumental in the shaping of the Muscle Shoals music scene in the 1960s. Sledge was signed to a record deal, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge’s emotionally delivered debut single, shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1966, and while other charting singles soon followed, none could match the popularity of his first hit. Sledge’s career floundered in the 1970s, then saw a resurgence in the following decade when his signature song was placed in a Levi’s commercial in the UK, of all places. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was covered by a number of other artists, most notably by Michael Bolton, whose version also topped the charts in 1991. The song also served as a centerpiece for a 1994 film of the same name.
While Sledge’s career was basically carried by a single song, that song made an indelible mark on pop culture. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was named by Rolling Stone as #53 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Sledge himself was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005; his bio on the organization’s website begins with, “If Percy Sledge had only recorded ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’…he would have earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”