To hear Percy Sledge tell it, the melody for “When a Man Loves a Woman” lived in his head long before he recorded the song that would be his first single, and the first Southern soul song to go No. 1 on the pop charts. “I hummed it all my life, even when I was picking and chopping cotton in the fields,” Sledge, who died today at age 73, told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biographers upon his induction in 2005.
It’s an appropriate backstory for the 1966 song, which seems to define the word “timeless.” The melody—a tsunami-size declaration followed by a contemplative ebb before the song crests again—is both so ornate and so viscerally powerful that it’s hard to believe anyone wrote it at all. Officially, the people who did were organist Calvin Lewis and bassist Andrew Wright, who never penned another hit. Sledge always maintained that he gifted them the writing credits, and in any case his pained vocals remain indelible even after popular reinterpretations by the likes of Michael Bolton and Bette Midler. The Muscle Shoals musicians' backing track is just as iconic, with its tender organ, descending bassline, twinkling guitars, and climactic blare of horns.
The title refrain contributes to the sense of the song as something elemental: “When a man loves a woman” is the essential premise of so many stories, of so many songs, of so many actual relationships. Accordingly, the track has become a staple of weddings and movie love scenes. But it's no portrait of bliss: “When a man loves a woman,” Sledge sings, “If she is bad, he can't see it / She can do no wrong / Turn his back on his best friend if he put her down.” The list of hypothetical demands a woman can make on a smitten man proceeds from there, and they contribute to the sense among some that the song's renown results from popular misunderstanding. At Flavorwire, Tom Hawking summed up one view of the song in 2012, writing, “When a man loves a woman, he will … um, basically act like a doormat, even if she doesn’t love him and treats him like shit? Yeah, we’re not really feeling the classic love song angle here.”
The thing is, though, the doormat theme is a big part of what elevates Sledge’s track from schmaltzy to timeless. Totally unbalanced relationships aren’t complications or subversions of the love-song tradition; they’re essential to it. Ted Gioia’s recent book Love Songs: The Hidden History, as described in James Parker’s Atlantic review, proposes “romantic enslavement”—a “wacko celebration of ownership and enthrallment”—as the essential trope of the love song, in a tradition that stretches back to captive performers of antiquity. Whether equating romance to drugs or obsession or (in Sledge’s case) blind obedience, many of history's greatest love songs don't tell stories of mutual affection. They tell of total, terrifying vulnerability. In that, Sledge really did record the perfect song for weddings—a reminder, in scorching wails and in brutal lyrics, of how heavy love can be.