Wednesday Weeper of the Week: “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy SledgePosted: April 15, 2015
Today’s Weeper honors Percy Sledge, who passed away yesterday at the age of 74. The timing seemed right, obviously, to talk about “When A Man Loves A Woman”, but I would have gotten around to it eventually, I’m sure. You’d be hard-pressed to find a vocal that exhibits more of that elusive quality we call “soul” than what Sledge delivers on this #1 hit from 1966.
As is too often the case with songs from this era, there is dispute about the songwriting credits. The listed writers are Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, members of an Alabama band that was fronted by Sledge. Sledge himself later claimed that he improvised many of the lyrics over the music from a previously-written song. In any case, the songwriting isn’t what makes the song. It’s the magic of the recording, from the inevitably falling bass line, to the cooing organ, to that horn bleat that busts on the scene in the final moments of the song and approximates Sledge’s own towering notes.
“When A Man Loves A Woman” was well before my time, so I was only vaguely aware of it from oldies channels’ spins until I heard it on the debut episode of The Wonder Years. There were a lot of reasons that I loved that show, but one of the most prominent was how it utilized music. I thought, once Miami Vice burst onto the scene and demonstrated just how potent pop and rock music could be on television, that other shows would follow suit and ape its success in that department. The Wonder Years finally got it right four years later, using well-chosen 60’s evergreens to echo the bittersweet sentiments of the suburbs as well as Miami Vice used moody 80’s tunes to evoke the conflicted emotions of undercover cops.
In the closing moments of that debut episode, Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper share their first kiss in a tree on the same night when she learns that her brother died in Vietnam. Right as he puts his coat around her arms to warm her up, the opening strains of “When A Man Loves A Woman” can be heard. As he kisses her, narrator Daniel Stern muses about the “pain and struggle of love.” And Percy Sledge’s voice is in the background, belting it out, his knees buckling so he can more efficiently empty out the contents of his heart. We’re going to miss this all-time great, but it’s comforting to know that his greatest song will enjoy immortality as long as there are music fans around who know that pain and struggle all too well.
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