Mr Sledge somewhat unwisely waved goodbye to a fortune by giving away songwriting credit for this all-time classic…
When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Sledge
Atlantic 2326 (USA) / Atlantic 584 001 (UK) / Atlantic YZ 96 (UK 1987)
Recorded at Norala Sound Studio, Sheffield, Alabama
Released March 1966
Writers Cameron Lewis & Arthur Wright
Producers Quin Ivy & Marlin Greene
USA #1 28/5/66 2 weeks UK #4 6/66 UK #2 3/87
One of the most popular love songs of the past 50 years, we’re so used to hearing the hit version of ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ by Percy Sledge that we fail to notice that Mr Sledge is singing somewhat out of tune – in fact we were never supposed to hear this, but due to a manufacturing mix up, the wrong version of the record was released! Although the original idea for the song had been that of Mr Sledge, he somewhat unwisely waved goodbye to a fortune by giving away songwriting credit for this all-time classic to two members of his band, organist Arthur Wright and bassist Cameron Lewis – the pair must have made a fortune over the years.
In fact many of the people involved in the recording of this soul classic were naive to say the least. When seasoned industry veteran Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records agreed to release the track he rang producer Quin Ivy and “offered” him 50% of the publishing rights. These are the rights pertaining to the performance of the song – on record, radio and in concert – and are divided between the writers and the publisher of the song. In the case of a major hit song which sells millions of copies, and is played on the radio over a period of many years, this can amount to an enormous amount of money. Quin Ivy, unaware of the intricacies of song-publishing, happily agreed to give Atlantic 50% of the publishing rights not realising that he actually controlled the full 100%, and he was the one who should be offering a percentage to Atlantic. Thus have untold millions of dollars been given away in the music industry.
‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ began life as an on-stage jam when Sledge had been depressed at the loss of a girlfriend – the song’s working title was at first, ‘Why Did You Leave Me?’ (the final title has decidedly more panache), and it was first recorded as a demo under this title at Quin Ivy’s small studio in Sheffield, Alabama. Sledge and his musicians worked on improving the song for several months before coming up with the new title, at which point a new recording was made. Ivy’s studio was fairly primitive and the song was recorded in mono. Due to the basic facilities in the studio, the major part of the song had to be recorded in one take, with the horns and background vocals recorded at one later “over-dubbing” session. It wasn’t possible to overdub more than once, since too much sound quality would be lost. The finished recording down on tape just before Christmas 1965, the musicians involved weren’t particularly impressed with the result, especially since Sledge was decidedly off key – studio engineer Jimmy Johnson recalls that, “Percy was so out of tune we thought his voice might break a window!”
The overdubbed horn section was also painfully out of tune, but producer Quinn Ivy felt the recording had a certain something, and a copy was sent to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records who agreed – however, Wexler insisted that a new recording be made, this time in key, at Atlantic’s expense. Several weeks and a lot of dollars were used to create a totally new version of the song (recorded at Fame Studios with the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), which was duly despatched to Atlantic for release, and ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ was soon a major hit. However due to a mix up, Atlantic had released the wrong version – when the record was climbing the charts, Jerry Wexler telephoned producer Quin Ivy and said, “Aren’t you glad you re-cut it” to which Ivy replied, “Jerry, you used the original, out of tune horns and all!”
Aside from a similar follow up, ‘Warm And Tender Love’, Mr Sledge never again reached the same heights, although it’s something of an achievement for an artist with one major hit to still be remembered for that same song over 50 years later. This has something to do with the song’s enduring popularity – it has featured in a number of films, and was a major hit a second time around in Britain in 1987 when it was featured in a Levi’s television campaign, while Michael Bolton’s up-date of the song was a US #1 and UK #8 in 1991. It would also be interesting to hear Sledge’s “correct” recording of the song, although somehow after all these years, it probably just wouldn’t have the same charm. ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ appears on literally dozens of compilation albums and must have generated millions of dollars in royalties over the years, money that poor old Percy Sledge saw very little of. Still, how could he have known that his little song would become an all-time classic? Sadly, Percy Sledge passed on in April 2015.
Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton