We moved our family from Shepherds Bush in West London to Gomshall in Surrey on a stressful Thursday in the summer of 2006 and the next night I went into the Compasses, the local pub about two minutes’ walk from our new house, for the first time. I’d seen a sign outside that promised free live music every Friday and in a corner of the room was a guy with a white Fender Strat and he was singing ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ quite beautifully.
He turned out to be Steve Simpson, who used to play in Ronnie Lane's band Slim Chance. As I nursed my pint and listened to Steve, I realised we'd made the right move.
‘When A Man Loved A Woman’ is, of course, one of the most famous soul songs ever produced, written and sung in its original form by Percy Sledge who died yesterday. A bittersweet meditation on the inability of a love-struck Romeo to recognise that the object of his affection might not be quite as perfect as he imagines, it is utterly timeless, tear-jerkingly poignant and shockingly true to life; recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1966 and carried along in the main by a mournful organ played by Spooner Oldham and Sledge’s clear but grief-stricken intonation.
In the small print the song is credited to Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, two members of The Esquires, a band from nearby Sheffield of which Percy Sledge was the singer. Evidently Sledge gave them the writing credits as they came up with the melody over which he improvised lyrics based on his own feelings about a recently dissolved relationship. He would come to regret it, of course, not least because in 1987 Levi’s used ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’ in a jeans commercial in the UK, which sent the song tp to number two in the British charts. There was also a slew of cover versions by, among others, Bette Midler and Michael Bolton. Curiously, in view of his theme of romantic betrayal, it is among the most requested ‘first dance’ numbers by newlywed brides and grooms.
RIP Percy, your lovely song will live on forever.