Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Percy Sledge: The Way God Planned it

Percy Sledge
Percy Sledge Percy Sledge Percy Sledge Percy Sledge

He opens the door to suite 235 himself. No entourage. No aides fussing around. Alone. Dressed in white tux’ jacket and black silk hankie in the top pocket, black trousers, belt, shiny patent leather shoes and loud shirt. Like he’s just about to take to the stage in a Vegas casino. But this is 5.35pm, in a five-star London hotel on a Friday afternoon.

Global soul legend Percy Sledge. In the flesh. When I was about 11, and did every chore I could to earn cash to buy vinyl records, my first purchase was “Little Piece of Leather” by Donnie Elbert. The next, was by a certain Mr Sledge. My two older brothers turned me on to soul music, which they played on a blue-lidded HMV portable record player, outside my bedroom door. When they were getting ready to go to Wilby soul nights. Booker T & The MGs, Sam and Dave. Pickett. Sledge. Otis…they were all there on that little buzzing record player. Sweet, sweet music to my young ears, as I lay in bed wide awake. I was hooked.

Here I am over four decades later, face to face with this giant soul icon. I cannot wait to get stuck in to the interview, and even be in the same room as the great man.

Before I get up there, I get a call at reception to say he’s running late by 20 minutes or so. Percy has flown in at 7am that day from the USA, to perform just six songs next day at the Vintage festival at the Royal Festival Hall. He does not do interviews on show day I am told, so I arrange to meet with him the day before. He has just three media interviews scheduled. Me, BBC 6 Music and a crew for a documentary on Muscle Shoals. He’s not only been there. Done it. Got the tee shirt. A living soul legend. He is still going strong at 70 years old. We sit at the table containing a huge bowl of fruit, and a wine cooler with two bottles of mineral water in it. In the middle of the sitting room of the £500-a-night suite. Overlooking the Thames. I switch on the tape machine and open by telling him how grateful I am for him seeing me, and what an honour it is. I meant it. But these luxurious surroundings are a far cry from where young Percy started out seven decades ago.

He was born and raised in the country, at Leighton, Alabama, right slap bang in the middle of the racially segregated areas of Birmingham, Alabama and Huntsville. He witnessed the racial problems, but never personally experienced the hatred of those times. Growing up with black and white kids working on the cotton fields together, he had a normal childhood. He spent a lot of time out in the woods on his own, singing.

Hearing his voice echo back at him, those sweet falsetto tones that would one day help make him in to a superstar. He had a melody in his head for years. On the cotton fields and in the woods, he would hum it and sing it. A melody that he later added lyrics to, about painful betrayal by a woman he loved. A song that helped to sustain a 45-year career, and turn him in to a global legend. But a song that cost him a fortune too, and plays a part in the biggest mistake he ever made!

We begin by me asking if he ever gets fed up singing “that” song, or ever forgets the words. You know the one…..”When A Man Loves A Woman.” He smiles and says, categorically; “Never. Impossible.” I venture into an area about which I am unsure of his reaction. The staggering fact that despite him penning 99.9% of that timeless and iconic song in 1965, he agreed to give away all writing credits to two struggling musicians who helped him, with in his words; “a couple of chords.” Some 45-years later, when that song has sold millions, is on many compilation albums, movie soundtracks and adverts, Percy has earned zilch from the sales and airplay royalty. Not a bean. He has missed out on millions of dollars. So did he regret that decision now? “Worst decision I ever made. But I am not at all bitter. I figure if God wanted me to do what I did, and say what I did to tell those guys they could have the song, then I’ll leave it that away (sic) and I would never change it. No way. The way I feel; it was God’s will for me to give it to them. But if I had my time again, I wouldn’t do it. Because of my children. I wasn’t thinking about my kids, and giving away a lot of their rights when I done that. I wasn’t thinking. I was only 25 in 1966.”

Talking of his kids, Percy has 12 of them, 15 grand kids and 1 great grandchild. He has been happily married to Rosa, also a singer, since 1980. He speaks often and affectionately about his family during our time together.

Percy worked as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital in Sheffield, Alabama in the ‘60s, while playing gigs with The Esquires Combo at weekends. He was introduced to record producer Quinn Ivy by a former patient and mutual friend, and after an audition, quit his day job to sign a record contract. Ivy and Marlin Greene produced Percy on a series of soul ballads, and took his first record, “When A Man Loves A Woman” to Atlantic, who snapped him up. That was the label’s first ever Gold record. It hit number one in the US and around the world.

Twice in the charts here; number six in 1966 and number two in 1987, when Levis featured it in a TV jeans ad’. He followed that smash with “Warm and Tender Love,” “It Tears Me Up,” ”Take Time To Know Her,” “Love Me Tender” and “Cover Me.” In the 70s, he was back with two hits, “I’ll Be Your Everything” and “Sunshine.“ The Levis ad in the ‘80s did him a huge favour, and then in 1994 he got a Grammy nomination and won a WC Handy award for the album “Blue Night,” which featured Bobby Womack, Steve Cropper and ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. In 2004, Percy Sledge was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Back to that song again, the one he calls the “Grand-daddy” of all his songs. How did he feel knowing he is personally responsible for a population boom around the world, when guys and gals have made sweet love to his velvet soul voice on that record - one of the most requested songs of all time at weddings?

“As a kid, on the cotton fields, I had this tune in my head. I hummed it and sang it. It was the same melody as ‘When A Man Loves A Woman.’ I could never, ever forget it. I was a little boy singing sad songs, about 9 or 10 years old in the woods. I listened to my voice coming back to me. It was as high as you could go. I dreamed of being famous as a singer, when I was on those cotton fields. I wanted to see the world and meet people.“

“Then when I was 25, I was in love with a girl I met on a blind date, which is what made me write this song from that melody I had as a child. She left me for another guy, and I expressed myself in that song. How could she do me like this? I’d give her my last dime. Sleep out in the rain. All she had to do was be next to me. Leaving me…everyone knew before I did.“ Percy then sings me a line. “Because lovin’ eyes can never see.” That song’s lyrical content contained genuine hurt for Percy, and we discuss his approach to singing it. “Yes, there is real pain and real heartache. My approach to the vocal is from all that hurt. ”

“All of my songs are the answer to that song. ‘Cover me.’ ‘Take Time To Know Her.’ ‘Warm and Tender Love.’ ‘Out Of Left Field.’ ’Dark End Of The Street.’ ‘Tears Me Up.’ ‘My Special Prayer.’ All points back to one song. ‘When A Man Loves A Woman.’ The Grand-daddy to all of my songs. The boss of all of my songs. I have great respect for that song. Always will.”

Percy says he is a little upset that many people only know him for the one song, thinking of him as a one hit wonder, when in fact he had many hits. He also revealed that his record label were not too keen on keeping him on, after his smash hit debut, in the mistaken opinion that perhaps he was a one trick pony. “Well you know, Atlantic records thought that about me when I first did ‘When A Man Loves A Woman.’ But thank God for Jerry Wexler, as he always believed in me. He spoke highly of me at Atlantic, when he was the big man there. Atlantic stuck with me through ‘Warm and Tender Love,’ ‘Cover Me’……” A knock at the door from the maid, to turn down his bed, interrupts us. He lets her in, and comes back to the table to continue.

“I found myself explaining it to a lot of my fans. Well not fans, they are people, because my real fans know. I say I did ‘Cover Me,’ ‘Warm And Tender Love,’ ‘TakeTime To Know Her’…..they say ‘Oh, you did all those songs? That was you? ‘Some did not even know that. I feel empty in a way, that they don’t know.“

How does Percy deal with his mega fame? Being known globally as a legend? “Well, I am the type of guy that has always been the same all of my life. My class mates at our class reunion always say the same thing. They could not believe that being a world artist, I still seem like I was when we were at school together. We meet every other year. They all have grey hair.” He laughs, as he sits opposite me at 71 this November, with jet black hair and honestly looking years younger than he is. Apart from diabetes, diagnosed nine years ago, Percy is in very good health and avoids showbiz excesses, and it seems, Diva tendencies. “I keep my feet on the ground because of my roots, and the way I was raised."

I’d say from our time together, he seems a pretty level-headed guy and not prone to superstar tantrums, like some. He recalls a story from his time in Europe, working with soul great Wilson Pickett. “We were in Austria. I’ll never forget that time. Me and Wilson Pickett. He was talking about who was going to go on last. So the people putting on the show wanted me to go on last. But he was getting agitated, so I told him he could. So I went on with my band for the first spot and did 12 songs. I brought the kids up on the stage from the audience. We really socked it to them that night. We got off the stage and everyone started folding up the chairs and leaving. They said to Pickett, see out there…you made a big thing about going on last and everyone is leaving now. That was just terrible for such a great artist. But it never matters to me who goes on first or last. Want me to open up, I’ll do it. On last, I’ll do it. I have had some say there is no way they can possibly follow me,” he laughs loudly at the thought. Yes, he’d be a real hard act to follow, I’m sure.

The sad news is, Percy tells me he has done with recording now. He is part way through cutting a gospel album, and a CD of Christmas songs. Then he is never going to record again. Terrible news. But he has no immediate plans to retire from performing, and still loves taking to the stage all over the world. Thank goodness.

So what does he make of the resurgence of soul music today, with a lot of young white artists getting success in that genre. Did he agree with the age old sentiment that: “They don’t write ‘em like that any more,” when it came to today’s material, compared to the mega classic he penned?

“Some of the greatest artists of today are 20, 21-years-old, but they sing about their way of living today. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, we always believed in respecting our woman . The younger generation today do and say things, not showing respect to their ladies.” Percy goes on to speak about his dislike of modern songs that contain “cussing.”
“I don’t like it at all. It is about respect. You need to respect people. If you are going to be on the radio, entertaining people all over the world, show respect. They should not use such language. It is unnecessary.” Showing he has been around the block when it comes to dealing with the media, he refuses to name any particular guilty artists. “I do not want to diss (sic) no artist by name. But there is just no need for cussing in songs.”

We discuss his pending show tomorrow night, one I shall sadly miss when I am back home in the Midlands by then. Just six songs and as he says, so many to choose from. “It is so difficult. “ But he guarantees he will close with a certain “Grandaddy” of ‘em all. He says British audiences are very tough. ”You have to be good. Very much like in Germany. You cannot fake ‘em. Same as New York.” I doubt Mr S has ever “faked” one single show, in 50 years. No sir. So, we know he dreamed of being a star. But did he really think he’d make it when he was starting out? “Simon. I never ever thought I would be an artist known all over the world. Never.” Another example of this quiet, seemingly ego-less star’s modesty.

We end the interview, and Percy agrees to pose for some photographs in the suite. By the window overlooking the river. In the corner by the giant palm plant. Sat at the table. After the photo shoot, he yawns, stretches and heads for the bedroom to get some sleep after that red-eye flight from the US.

I tell him again how genuinely grateful and honoured I am, that he agreed to see me, had given me so much of his time, and been a lovely guy to interview and photograph. As a fan, I am absolutely thrilled. As a journalist, absolutely delighted. He is so gracious and shakes my hand warmly, pointing me towards the door from the suite, asking me to hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the outside of the door handle, so he can catch some serious zeds.

I say goodbye, and open the door to leave. Feeling ten feet tall, very pleased to have such a great interview, and some nice shots of this musical giant in the can. I am the cat that got the cream. My mind already planning the intro’ to my article. I open the door to leave, say a final goodbye and take two steps. Percy stands in the bedroom door behind me. Oh dear…….I’m now in the walk-in laundry cupboard!

A soul legend’s laughter echoes along the corridor, as I reach the lift………………….


Photos: Simon Redley

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