In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
First off: Forget about Michael Bolton. It’s hard, I know. If you are a person of a certain generation — of my generation — then the six words of this song’s title will instantly conjure images of Bolton, eyes clenched tight and hair exploding everywhere, unleashing the full force of his dentist’s-office yarl. That’s a tough thing to shake. And since Bolton’s version of “When A Man Loves A Woman” hit #1 in 1991, we’ll get to it. We can’t blame Percy Sledge for Michael Bolton. Michael Bolton is just a thing that happened — an act of God.
In 1966, when “When A Man Loves A Woman” hit, the only black music that was reliably hitting #1 in America came from the assembly line. That Motown music was great, but it made for a very particular version of soul music — one that was sharp, streamlined, and explicitly made palatable for mainstream white audiences. “When A Man Loves A Woman” was something else: A hard and raspy and passionate Southern soul song that was way closer to soul music’s gospel roots than anything you’d be likely to hear on Motown.
Percy Sledge was an Alabama native who’d worked in cotton fields before landing a job as an orderly at a hospital in Sheffield. On weekends, he did shows around the Southeast with his band, the Esquires Combo. One night, too broken up about a girlfriend leaving town to perform his regular set, he told his band to improvise something slow and bluesy, and what came out was an early version of “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Quin Ivy, a local record producer, caught a Sledge performance and told him that the song could be a hit if he polished it up. And so that’s what Sledge did.
The songwriting credits on “When A Man Loves A Woman” went to Esquires members Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright. Later on, Sledge claimed that he’d written most of the song but that he’d given his bandmates those credits because they’d given him a chance to sing what was in his soul. He also said that it was the biggest mistake he’d ever made. Maybe Sledge was just talking shit. But whether or not he’d given away those songwriting credits in a fit of generosity, he certainly deserves a songwriting credit. Because the way he sings “When A Man Loves A Woman” is its own kind of authorship.
The Esquires didn’t play on “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Instead, Sledge recorded the song at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. And the soon-to-be-legendary house band at Muscle Shoals, including organ player Spooner Oldham, backed him up. Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett had recorded hits at Muscle Shoals before Sledge, but “When A Man Loves A Woman” was the studio’s first #1. It was also the first #1 for Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler, who would help develop Southern soul music into a commercial force, especially after he signed Aretha Franklin and sent her to Muscle Shoals. And you can hear that sound arriving fully formed on “When A Man Loves A Woman.”
It’s a slow, heavy-hearted song, its organ pushing it back toward the church. There’s some delicate, spidery guitar work and some restrained, humid wordless backing vocals. The horns are out of tune. Wexler sent the record back so that the horns could be re-recorded, but the tapes got mixed up, so the version with the out-of-tune horns is the one that came out.
It’s not a tightly written song, the way the Motown ones were. It’s a slow burn, building toward the climactic point where those horns kick in. Sledge doesn’t bother with a chorus. The whole thing is a chorus, really. He’s singing about how blind love can make a man, how it can force him to ignore his own welfare. And he cuts loose from the song’s third syllable, wailing hard, losing himself in it. He gives himself over completely to the song, to the idea of ecstatic agony.
Sledge never made the top 10 again, but he kept working, cranking out songs from that same basic template. And every so often, “When A Man Loves A Woman” would find a new audience. It would show up in a Levis commercial, or in Platoon, or coming out of Michael Bolton’s mouth, and Sledge would get another career renaissance out of it. He made it to 74, when liver cancer finally ended his run in 2015.
BONUS BEATS: Back in the pre-Odd Future days when Frank Ocean was still a faceless Def Jam signee, recording under the name Lonny Breaux, he sang over a “When A Man Loves A Woman” sample from producer J.R. Rotem and made a song called “Non-Stop.” Here’s that song:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of an extremely young, pre-Mickey Mouse Club Ryan Gosling singing “When A Man Loves A Woman” at a Mormon talent show in 1991: