I was saddened earlier this week to hear about the death of Percy Sledge, one of the greatest soul singers of all time. Yes, I’d rank him up there as one of the very best, along with more famous singers such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, and Sam Cooke. Percy Sledge may not have enjoyed the same fame and acclaim as those others, but make no mistake about it; he was truly one of the great ones.
Of course it’s not like Percy Sledge was an unknown singer himself. He had his share of hits in the 1960s, his best known song being “When A Man Loves a Woman,” a monster hit when it came out in 1966 and one that later enjoyed a second life when it was used in a TV commercial and reissued as a single in the 1980s. It’s been said that “When A Man Loves a Woman” was the very first Southern soul record to top the US pop charts. Later, in his outstanding musical history book, Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick wrote of the song: “Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song.”
There are several good collections of Sledge’s hits available as single or double disc CD sets, but my favorite CD is a two-for-one collection that includes the albums The Percy Sledge Way and Take Time To Know Her, originally released in 1967 and 1968. These albums contain perfect examples of Sledge’s pleasing country-soul mastery, songs (many of which were written by the legendary Dan Penn) such as “Dark End of the Street”, “Drown in My Tears”, “Take Time to Know Her”, “Cover Me”, and “Out of Left Field.” If you don’t know these songs, you should!
And out of all his many hits, my very favorite Percy Sledge song is definitely “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road,” a tune that resonates with weariness and despair, but also hope and joy. It’s an exquisite example of sweet southern soul, something that Percy Sledge seemed to do with effortless ease and confidence. I also have a late-career album by Percy Sledge that is very good, 2004’s Shining Through the Rain. Sledge was in his 60s when these songs were recorded, but his voice still retains its power and elegance as he covers songs such as “Big Blue Diamonds” and “My Old Friend the Blues.