JAY REEVES, Associated Press
REBECCA SANTANA, Associated Press
MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. (AP) — Sound engineer Jimmy Johnson knew he had captured something special on tape as Percy Sledge finished singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” in a recording studio in 1965.
Sledge, who died Tuesday, grew up singing in nearby cotton fields of northwest Alabama and never had been in a studio before that day. He didn’t even know how to work a microphone during that first session, Johnson said.
Johnson had to twirl the volume dials on the recording machine just to keep Sledge’s untrained voice at the correct levels during the session, but it worked. The track would become a No. 1 hit in 1966 and establish Sledge as a rhythm-and-blues singer of the first order.
“It gave us chills,” Johnson said.
Afterward, Sledge became a star and helped his native northwest Alabama establish itself as a recording Mecca that drew Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, Bob Seger and other top-shelf stars of the 1960s and ’70s in search of the “Muscle Shoals Sound.”
Johnson, now 72, said it all began when Sledge sang “When a Man Loves a Woman,” with its haunting lyrics and his mournful, blue-eyed style.
“Everything lined up for this,” said Johnson, who played rhythm guitar for the great Muscle Shoals studio group called “The Swampers.”
“I mean, the song was one of the best songs I’ve ever heard even to this day. The lyrics were incredible. The melody was wonderful. Percy’s voice and the job he did,” Johnson said in his home overlooking the Tennessee River. “I mean, hey, it still holds up today.”
Johnson’s business partner, 71-year-old bass player David Hood, another of the legendary studio musicians from Muscle Shoals, said he owed his career to Sledge and described him as the “nicest person you’d ever want to meet.”
Hood — the father of Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood — played with Sledge for years and last saw him in the fall, when friends threw a benefit show for Sledge after learning he had been diagnosed with liver disease.
“He was very sick, very weak, but he did come up on stage and sing “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Hood said.
Sledge, who soared from part-time singer and hospital orderly to lasting fame with his aching, forlorn performance on the classic song, was 74 when he died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
His family said in a statement released through his manager, Mark Lyman, that Sledge died at his home after a yearlong struggle with cancer. The cause of death was liver failure, Lyman said.
Despite having other hits Sledge became known for “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It was the first No. 1 hit from Muscle Shoals, and the first gold record for Atlantic Records.
Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler later called the song “a transcendent moment” and “a holy love hymn.” Sledge’s hit became a standard that sustained his long touring career in the United States, Europe and South Africa and led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. It was a favorite at weddings — Sledge himself did the honors at a ceremony for musician and actor Steve Van Zandt — and often turned up in movies, including “The Big Chill,” ”The Crying Game” and a 1994 Meg Ryan drama named for the song’s title.
Recognizable by his wide, gap-toothed smile, Sledge had a handful of other hits between 1966 and 1968, including “Warm and Tender Love,” ”It Tears Me Up,” ”Out of Left Field” and “Take Time to Know Her.” He returned to the charts in 1974 with “I’ll Be Your Everything.”
Before he became famous, Sledge worked in the cotton fields around his hometown of Leighton in northwest Alabama and took a job in a hospital in nearby Sheffield. He also spent weekends playing with a rhythm-and-blues band called the Esquires. A hospital patient heard him singing while working and recommended him to record producer Quin Ivy.
In the 2013 documentary “Muscle Shoals,” Sledge recalled recording the song: “When I came into the studio, I was shaking like a leaf. I was scared.” He added that it was the “same melody that I sang when I was out in the fields.”
“I just wailed out in the woods and let the echo come back to me.”
Sledge said the song was inspired by a girlfriend who left him for a modeling career after he was laid off from a construction job in 1965. But in a decision that likely cost him a fortune, he gave the songwriting credits to two Esquires bandmates, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, who helped him with it.
While identified with Muscle Shoals, Sledge lived for most of his career in Baton Rouge. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Dick Cooper, curator of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, said Sledge’s biggest hit laid the foundation for decades of music.
“‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ is one of the greatest and most compelling of the soul ballads that have ever been recorded,” he said. “It set a trend that was followed throughout the ’60s and ’70s by a number of artists.”
Santana reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers Kevin McGill in New Orleans, Brian Slodysko in Baton Rouge, and Mesfin Fekadu and Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this report.
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