Synonymous With Soul, Percy Sledge Transcended The Muscle Shoals Sound

Feb 20, 2020
Originally published on February 20, 2020 10:54 am

Morning Edition's series One-Hit Wonders / Second-Best Songs focuses on musicians or bands whose careers in the United States are defined by a single monster hit, and explains why their catalogs have much more to offer.

In this edition, NPR Music's Senior Director, Lauren Onkey, argues on behalf of Percy Sledge, whose 1966 hit, "When A Man Loves A Woman," is now synonymous with the soul sound that came out of Muscle Shoals, Ala. Read Lauren in her own words below, and hear the radio version at the audio link.


Percy Sledge grew up in Leighton, Ala., a town close to the Muscle Shoals studios. "When a Man Loves a Woman" was the first song that he recorded, and it's the first No. 1 hit to come out of Muscle Shoals. He continued to record for Atlantic and had a number of hits in the Top 10 R&B charts, but "When a Man Loves a Woman" was the song that created the sound of Southern soul and the studio sound of Muscle Shoals.

For an alternate entry point into his music, I chose Percy Sledge's "Out of Left Field," which he recorded a year later in the spring of 1967. Written by Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, two great writers who did so much work for people like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, it wasn't a huge hit, but it's a great representation of his voice and the Muscle Shoals sound.

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"Out of Left Field" is a beautiful illustration of what a strong singer Percy Sledge was, with an ability to match his vocal performance with the lyrics. The song is about that first electric moment of falling in love unexpectedly, and he portrays it with such wonder in his vocals. Sledge is recording mostly with Spooner Oldham in this period, and even Oldham's organ playing — in the groove and the way it builds — demonstrates tremendous patience.

Percy Sledge recorded so many great soul songs throughout the late '60s and into the '70s, like "Take Time to Know Her," "Warm and Tender Love," and "It Tears Me Up". He was a masterful vocalist who could sing anything: country, early rock and roll, Southern soul. I think the scale of "When a Man Loves a Woman" shadows him, but there's a whole mountain of other recordings that we've missed because that's the only song that gets circulated.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In 1966, this song was a monster No. 1 hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN")

PERCY SLEDGE: (Singing) When a man loves a woman, can't keep his mind on nothing else. He'd change the world for a good thing he's found...

GREENE: That is Percy Sledge. "When A Man Loves A Woman" is now synonymous with the soul sound that came out of Muscle Shoals, Ala. Now, strangely, he never hit the Top 10 on the U.S. pop charts after that. How is it that this man who now sits in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame could only score one big hit? Well, we asked someone who worked at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for seven years. She is now the senior director of NPR Music, Lauren Onkey. Percy Sledge is the artist she chose for our series One-Hit Wonders/Second-Best Songs.

LAUREN ONKEY, BYLINE: "When A Man Loves A Woman" was Percy Sledge's first song that he recorded. So he comes out of the gate with this massive hit. It's the first No. 1 out of the whole Muscle Shoals sound and, of course, has this long second life in films like "The Big Chill" and "The Crying Game." Percy Sledge continues to record and has a number of hits - nothing as big as "When A Man Loves A Woman." So it's not like he fails. It's that - I suppose he comes back down to size from such a massive hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF LEFT FIELD")

SLEDGE: (Singing) When least expected...

ONKEY: I chose Percy Sledge's "Out Of Left Field," which he recorded in the spring of 1967, about a year after "When A Man Loves A Woman." The song is about falling in love and having that first electric moment where that chemical lightning bolt comes out of left field and you just fall for somebody. And it has that wonder in it in Percy Sledge's vocal. I think it's a great, great illustration of what a strong singer he was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF LEFT FIELD")

SLEDGE: (Singing) I needed someone to call my own. Suddenly, out of left field...

ONKEY: His voice and the words just match beautifully about being so in love and so lost in that love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF LEFT FIELD")

SLEDGE: (Singing) Love came along...

ONKEY: The song has tremendous patience, too - in the groove, the way it builds. And Sledge just nails it. You hear a little country in his voice, too. So it's a perfect Percy Sledge track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF LEFT FIELD")

SLEDGE: (Singing) Sugar and peaches in a paradise land, yeah. Good love and sweetness have taken their stand...

ONKEY: I think the scale of "When A Man Loves A Woman" is just - it just shadows him. But there's a whole mountain of recordings that we've missed because that song is so great. And that's the only one that gets circulated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF LEFT FIELD")

SLEDGE: (Singing) Suddenly, out of left field...

GREENE: That was NPR Music senior director Lauren Onkey. "Out Of Left Field" by Percy Sledge is her pick for our series One-Hit Wonders/Second-Best Songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF LEFT FIELD")

SLEDGE: (Singing) When least expected, fate stumbles... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.