Years ago, while having a late-night conversation with a friend, I mentioned how much I loved the song When a Man Loves a Woman. My parents owned the single, and growing up I played it every chance I got. With that sorrowful organ intro, it sounded like the beginning of a prayer, and though I didn’t fully understand the lyrics, I found the earnestness of Percy Sledge’s singular voice deeply touching.
My friend, who generally had impeccable taste in music, rolled his eyes and hissed,“Ooh, I hate that song!”
I was taken aback. Who could possibly dislike one of history’s greatest pop songs, a certified soul classic so evergreen it remained as powerful as when it first shot to the top of the charts in 1966? At the time, we were still in our 20s and had yet to experience the bottomless pit of an all-consuming love. Where I heard a love song, he heard heartbreak, and what bothered him about the song was its emotional rawness. This wasn’t a tune about a wonderful relationship, but the upending tumult of loving someone.
Percy Sledge, who died Tuesday, was not a one-hit wonder, but he never had another song as indelible as When a Man Loves a Woman. That song secured his entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, and is the reason his passing, at age 74, is being mourned worldwide. From karaoke bars to Hollywood films, the R&B staple is all over pop culture. In 1994, Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan starred in a tear-jerking melodrama bearing its name. It has been covered by various singers, from Bette Midler’s searing Janis Joplin-esque version in the film The Rose, to Michael Bolton’s inexplicably popular bombastic yawn. Yet regardless of who sings it, it will forever belong to Sledge. He didn’t write the song — that credit belongs to Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright — but for nearly 50 years, it poured from him as if he had lived every one of its painful declarations. In fact, Sledge, born in Alabama, often said a lost love in his own life inspired it.
Jerry Wexler, the late revered producer who worked with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Dusty Springfield, once called When a Man Loves a Woman a holy love hymn.” Perhaps, but it most certainly is not a love song. It has less to do with love’s magic than with the mental machinations endured by those who fall hard and too easily. To speak of love is to evoke an odd language of possession: You belong to me. I am yours. You are mine. Heard a certain way, Sledge’s song could be the obsessive lamentation of a man desperate to hold onto someone who, despite everything he says, he may think unworthy of his oversized affection:
Well, this man loves you, woman
I gave you everything I have,
Tryin’ to hold on to your heartless love,
Baby, please don’t treat me bad.
When a man loves a woman,
Down deep in his soul,
She can bring him such misery.
If she is playin’ him for a fool,
He’s the last one to know,
Lovin’ eyes can never see.
Sledge is pleading, and after he admits to giving this woman “everything I have,” the lyric “Baby, please don’t treat me bad” sounds both ominous and desolate. It brings to mind the opening of Toni Morrison’s shattering 1992 novel Jazz, where a man falls for an 18-year-old woman “with one of those deep down, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.”
Still, for all the ways the song can be unsettling when parsed, it has flourished for decades because Sledge never plunges into bitterness. Yes, love can be scary, even overwhelming, but it is also fundamental to our humanity. You don’t just hear this remarkable song; if you have some living under your belt, you nod with hard-earned recognition, because Sledge speaks for every vulnerable heart that needs to love and be loved.
With Sledge’s death, many tributes were offered, and When a Man Loves a Woman will likely be inescapable for a while. Yet no matter how many times it’s played, it will never sound tired or rote, because of the plaintive, aching cadence of Sledge’s voice. His was a performance for the ages, and though the singer is now gone, for generations to come the tangible intimacy of Sledge’s soaring signature song will remain the same.
Renee Graham, a writer in Boston, is a regular contributor to the Globe Opinion pages.
© 2015 The Boston Globe