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Synonymous With Soul, Percy Sledge Transcended The Muscle Shoals Sound

Percy Sledge never matched the height of his first hit, but Lauren Onkey frames it as less of a failure than an act of coming back down to size.
Rick Diamond
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Percy Sledge never matched the height of his first hit, but Lauren Onkey frames it as less of a failure than an act of coming back down to size.

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.

"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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Onkey is the Senior Director of NPR Music in Washington, DC. In this role, she leads NPR Music's team of journalists, critics, video, and podcast makers, and works with NPR's newsroom and robust Member station network to expand the impact of NPR Music and continue positioning public radio as an essential force in music.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.