|Photo by Richard King|
The first time Percy Sledge walked into a recording studio, he walked out with a No. 1 record. With stately, gospel-drenched organ framing Sledge’s ice-pick-through-the-heart vocals, his 1966 recording of “When a Man Loves a Woman” became the first “deep soul” record to top the Billboard Pop charts. It’s been his set-closer for the last 38 years. “I do it different every time,” says Sledge.
To the casual listener, Sledge is a classic one-hit wonder. Soul aficionados know, though, that he scored three more Top 10 R&B hits (“It Tears Me Up,” “Take Time To Know Her,” “Warm and Tender Love”) and cut a fistful of cult jams (notably “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road,” covered by the Afghan Whigs in 1992).
The last time Percy Sledge walked out of a recording studio, he’d just completed the new Shining Through the Rain, his first studio album in 10 years. Co-produced — as was Sledge’s previous LP — by singer-songwriter-keyboardist Barry Goldberg (whose credits span the last five decades) and Saul Davis (who cherry-picked the tunes), Shining sports songwriting contributions from Steve Earle, the Bee Gees, Allan Clarke & Terry Sylvester of the Hollies, veteran English rocker Jackie Lomax, Sweden’s Mikael Rickfors (co-composer of the title track), and Texas-to-L.A. transplant Carla Olson, among others, as well as a choice cover of Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces’ ’66 soul smash, “Searching for My Love.”
While Wallflowers front man Jakob Dylan and former Manfred Mann vocalist Paul Jones make cameo appearances, and the core band ’n’ guest list include such semifamous names as keyboardist Clayton Ivey, bassist Bob Glaub, violinist Lili Haydn, the Waters family vocal group, the Texicali Horns, and guitarists Greg Leisz, Denny Freeman, Phil Upchurch and Larry Byrom, the album’s spotlight remains focused on Sledge’s patented pleading vocals.
“I like to lay back and let it linger long, like a teardrop,” Sledge explains, noting that his inspiration growing up in Alabama came via gospel greats such as the Soul Stirrers and the Five Blind Boys; he didn’t hear soul music until high school. “I grew up out in the country, and the only music you’d hear on the radio was country music — Jim Reeves, Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Snow were my favorites.” He says that’s what makes him different.
“When I’m choosing material, I look first for the melody, then the lyrics. My first producer, Quin Ivy, taught me that I could take any song and make it my own. Like when I got that demo by the Bee Gees, my wife said, ‘Ain’t no way in the world you can sing that.’ And I said, ‘But I like it and I can feel my way of singin’ it.’ You know the Bee Gees are my favorite group. Those cats can blow, brother.”
Sledge, now 63, claims he never sings offstage except when he’s working out new material. “Then I like to go down by the water” — he lives in Baton Rouge — “let the river wash up against the banks and just sit there looking out across everything, while I sing the songs to myself and get my ideas.”
Sledge remembers meeting Barry Goldberg, a longtime fan, when Goldberg tagged him to do a song for the 1987 film Adventures in Babysitting. “It took us seven more years to get that Blue Night album together — that’s when I met Saul — and another 10 to get this one done. But I love this album. I love the song ‘Shining Through the Rain,’ ’cause it’s soulful and the lyrics are meaningful and everybody’s playing their asses off. And ‘Fall Inside Your Eyes’ is my second favorite. It’s such a beautiful melody.”
He’s right on all counts. The former features some gorgeous interlocking guitar work, and the latter is an extraordinary interpretation of the Lomax tune.
So what has Sledge been doing for the last 10 years? “Touring around the world, playing concerts and a lot of casinos. I work three or four days a week for four-five weeks, then I take off two weeks. My wife, Rosa, sings in the show with me, so I’ve got it made now. Just shining through the rain.”