May 1966: "When a Man Loves a Woman" Ushers in the Muscle Shoals Sound

'When a Man Loves a Woman' album cover
Photo Credit
Atlantic Records

It was a heartfelt ballad with an almost-perfect recording - but audiences loved Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" enough to take it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 on May 28, 1966.

This immortal ballad has extremely humble beginnings: Sledge was a hospital orderly in Alabama who sang on weekends with a group called The Esquires. Two of the group's young members, Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, got the inspiration for the song at a practice before a Friday night dance.

"I was messing around on the organ when this riff came up out of nowhere," Wright told American Songwriter ."There was no one in the club but us. I told Calvin to go home and write some words." When Sledge heard the song, then titled "Why Did You Leave Me," he suggested they change the lyrics for a more romantic angle. Quin Ivy, a DJ at Muscle Shoals, Alabama radio station WLAY, agreed, suggesting more lyrical changes. "He didn’t take credit (as a songwriter), he just felt like it could be better," Wright explained. "So we kept some of the phrases, worked on it for several weeks, and spent quite a bit of time in the studio."

That studio was Ivy's own Norala Studios in nearby Sheffield; among the players on the track were Roger Hawkins, drummer for the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and session legend Spooner Oldham on the organ. Ivy was convinced the track would become a hit. So too did Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records - but the sharp-eared mogul asked if they'd re-cut the out of tune horns. They did so, but a mix-up in tape delivery led to the original version released as a single. No matter: the song topped the pop charts for two weeks and reached No. 4 in England. It was the first song to introduce audiences to the "Muscle Shoals sound" of soul that would come to define '60s and '70s rhythm and blues.

The song would enjoy another peak of popularity several decades later. In 1987, after being used in the film Platoon and a Levi's jeans commercial, the song was re-released in England and climbed to No. 2. Then in 1991, just two days before Percy Sledge's birthday, Michael Bolton's blue-eyed soul cover of the tune topped the Billboard Hot 100 - only the seventh song to reach the top from two different artists.

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