Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song When a Man Loves a Woman. This is a moving and beautiful soul tune. We will start with the original song by Percy Sledge, and then we will review covers from Leon Russell and also Art Garfunkel.
Percy Sledge and When a Man Loves a Woman:
Percy Sledge was an R&B singer from Alabama. Initially he held various ‘day jobs,’ such as a hospital orderly. Then on nights and weekends he was a vocalist with a group called the Esquires Combo. Below is a photo of a young Percy Sledge.
In late 1965, Percy Sledge and his Esquires bandmates bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright crafted a soul song. The inspiration for this tune was that Sledge’s girlfriend left him after he was laid off from a construction job.
The initial title for the song was Why Did You Leave Me, Baby? However, the song was then re-written and re-titled When a Man Loves a Woman. The three musicians worked for some time on the melody and words. Eventually, the songwriting credits went to Lewis and Wright.
In the earliest version of the song, it was patently obvious that the man had been dumped by his girl. However, after it was re-written, the song primarily emphasized all the things a man would do when he was in love.
It was now more implicit that the singer’s girlfriend had left him.
When a man loves a woman
Can’t keep his mind on nothing else
He’ll trade the world
For the good thing he’s found
If she’s bad he can’t see it
She can do no wrong
Turn his back on his best friend
If he put her down
… Well, this man loves a woman
I gave you everything I had
Trying to hold on to your precious love
Baby, please don’t treat me bad
The song was recorded at Norala Sound Studios just outside Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The song was produced by Quin Ivy, and neither of the songwriters Lewis nor Wright was among the backing musicians.
After it was released, the song became a gigantic hit. It shot up to #1 on both the R&B and Billboard Hot 100 charts, and it also reached #2 on the UK pop singles charts.
Unfortunately, Percy Sledge had mixed feelings about his breakout hit. He believed that the song was actually a collaborative effort between him, Lewis and Wright, and he maintained that he deserved part of the songwriting credits.
Here is Percy Sledge in a live performance of When a Man Loves a Woman.
Isn’t this terrific? Percy Sledge has the perfect voice for this tune, and he delivers it with palpable emotion. He is backed by a great horn section. The song is slow and deliberate, and unforgettable – you recognize it after you hear the very first note.
This song was the first #1 hit to come out of the Muscle Shoals studios, and also the first gold record released by Atlantic Records.
The song When a Man Loves a Woman is such a great soul tune that it has inspired dozens of covers. For example, in 1991 Michael Bolton released a cover of this song that went to #1 on both the Adult Contemporary and pop charts.
Also, in 1966 the Spencer Davis Group issued a cover of this song on their album Autumn ‘66. The group’s lead singer Stevie Winwood produced a terrific soul version of this classic.
However, in this blog post I want to concentrate on more ‘non-traditional’ covers of this song. Here we will feature a honky-tonk country version of this tune by Leon Russell. We will also review a sweet and romantic pop cover by Art Garfunkel.
Percy Sledge was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. I was surprised to see this. My understanding was that the Hall of Fame honored lifetime achievement, and I had always thought of Percy Sledge as a ‘one-hit wonder.’
But while When a Man Loves a Woman was far and away his biggest hit, Percy Sledge also had another 4 or 5 songs in the Billboard top 50 charts. In addition, he was extremely successful touring overseas. He made a number of profitable tours of Europe, and was extremely popular in South Africa.
Also, later in his career Percy Sledge won the W.C. Handy Award for best soul or blues album for his 1994 release Blue Night.
Percy Sledge was married twice and fathered 12 children. He died of liver cancer in April, 2015. He will always be remembered for his R&B ballad When a Man Loves a Woman.
Leon Russell and When A Man Loves a Woman:
Leon Russell is a musician and producer. He attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, OK, where fellow students at that time included Anita Bryant, David Gates and Elvin Bishop.
Russell was somewhat of a musical child prodigy. Even at the age of 14 he was playing in nightclubs in Tulsa. After leaving high school at 16, he made his way to Los Angeles where he studied guitar with the legendary James Burton.
Below is a photo of Leon Russell circa 1970.
In L.A., Russell quickly established himself as a session musician, mostly on keyboards but also on guitar and other instruments. Leon’s incredible versatility made him a valuable asset, as he could play anything from country to folk-rock to pop to hard rock.
Over the years Leon Russell has worked with an extraordinary range of rock and country musicians, including among others Jan and Dean, Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Rita Coolidge, George Harrison, Glen Campbell, the Beach Boys, the Carpenters, and Willie Nelson.
In 1969, Joe Cocker recorded Leon Russell’s song Delta Lady for Cocker’s eponymous album that was produced by Russell. This was Leon’s first big commercial songwriting success.
Also in 1969, Russell and Denny Cordell created the company Shelter Records. And Leon organized the musicians who played in Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.
Then in 1970, Leon Russell released his eponymous album on Shelter Records. That album contained what has become his signature tune, A Song for You.
Here is the audio of Leon Russell’s cover of When a Man Loves a Woman. This appeared on his 1978 album Americana.
I think this is a fantastic cover of Percy Sledge’s masterpiece. You can always count on Leon for truly creative production values. In this case, When a Man Loves a Woman is re-cast as a country tune.
The treatment here is reminiscent of what is called the “Tulsa Sound;” it’s a brand of country music that Russell helped to develop back in his early days in Oklahoma.
The song features Leon on honky-tonk piano, a nice chorus of backup singers, and a lovely saxophone solo. Leon has a great and immediately recognizable funky voice!
In the early 70s, Leon Russell continued his successful career as a singer, songwriter, and producer. He collaborated with artists like Bob Dylan, gave a memorable performance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, and some of his songs were nominated for Grammy Awards.
At the same time, Russell somehow managed to start up a parallel career as a country singer. Under the pseudonym ‘Hank Wilson,’ Russell released four albums featuring country and bluegrass music, beginning in 1973 and ending in 2001.
In 1976, Leon Russell began a fruitful collaboration with Willie Nelson. Their 1979 cover of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel reached #1 on the Billboard country music charts.
From 1980 onward, Leon Russell continued to issue albums at regular intervals, but they didn’t crack the top 200 on the charts. However, in 2010 Russell collaborated with Elton John and Bernie Taupin on an album The Union.
That double album, an amalgam of rock, country and blues, was produced by T-Bone Burnett and reached #3 on the Billboard album charts. This was the highest-charting album for Elton since 1976, and the highest for Russell since 1972.
In 2011, Leon Russell received two major honors. In March of that year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then in June he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
These were truly well-deserved accolades for an artist who has earned the nickname “the Master of Space and Time.”
Art Garfunkel and When a Man Loves a Woman:
Art Garfunkel is a renowned vocalist. Growing up in New York City, he met future musical partner Paul Simon when they appeared together in a grade school graduation play.
Between 1956 and 1962, Simon and Garfunkel appeared as a duo named “Tom and Jerry.” Below is a photo from the 50s of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon as “Tom and Jerry.”
As ‘Tom and Jerry,’ Simon and Garfunkel had one minor hit that (just barely) made the top 50 on the pop charts in 1957. They broke up in 1962, as Garfunkel went to Columbia University while Simon attended Queens College.
Simon and Garfunkel re-united as a duo in 1964, this time using their real names. Below is a photo of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon performing as Simon and Garfunkel.
Simon and Garfunkel issued an album for Columbia Records, titled Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. When the album was a flop, Paul Simon headed off to London as a solo folksinger.
When I was in England in 1965, I saw Paul Simon at a London coffee-house. He seemed to be a promising young folk-singer, and some of his tunes were quite memorable. I wished him well, but the folk-singing field was fairly crowded at this time, and it was not clear to me that he would be a success.
However, some of my friends saw him in London performing with a colleague, Art Garfunkel, and they were extremely impressed.
Meanwhile, back in the States Simon and Garfunkel’s album was getting some airplay, particularly the tune The Sound of Silence. So the album’s producer Tom Wilson went back to the studio and, unbeknownst to the vocalists, added an electric backing to the acoustic song.
The re-mastered Sound of Silence became a monster hit, and launched a stellar career for the duo. After that, song after song raced up the pop charts, and Simon and Garfunkel became major headliners.
Simon and Garfunkel were an absolutely wonderful duo. The short, intense Simon wrote and arranged the songs, and played guitar, while the tall, thin Garfunkel sported an angelic frizzy Afro, and an equally angelic high voice.
However, after five blockbuster albums the pair split up in 1970. My understanding is that Paul Simon felt that he was not getting sufficient appreciation for his own contributions.
Granted, Simon was the creative genius behind the group; however, they made such beautiful music together that it seemed a shame for them to break up.
After their split, Paul Simon went on to craft a stellar solo career. Art Garfunkel has recorded some albums and also worked as an actor. Garfunkel’s most acclaimed acting role came in the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols.
Here is Art Garfunkel performing When a Man Loves a Woman on the Johnny Carson Show in 1987.
Isn’t this marvelous? What a great take on the Percy Sledge classic song. Art Garfunkel’s fragile but ethereal voice is in beautiful form in this tune. Garfunkel takes this R&B song and turns it into an enchanting pop ballad. The musical accompaniment features a lovely oboe part.
We remain convinced that a truly great song can be expressed in any number of musical styles, when interpreted by creative and talented musicians. Here, we see that the Percy Sledge song When a Man Loves a Woman is also powerful and moving when re-framed as either a country song or a soft pop ballad.
Art Garfunkel is a bibliophile. He keeps detailed records of all the books he reads. His website, which you can access here, lists every book he has read since 1968 (over 1,000 of them!).
Over the years, Art Garfunkel has seen his share of hard times. He suffered from vocal cord paresis, an injury to the laryngeal nerves, from 2010 to 2013.
He also has experienced some crippling bouts of depression. This was particularly intense throughout the 80s after his girlfriend, actress Laurie Bird, committed suicide in 1979. He also became depressed following the death of his father in the mid-80s.
Art Garfunkel has such a beautiful voice, and has provided us with many moving and memorable songs. We wish him all the best both mentally and physically going forward.