Tuesday, 14 April 2015

So farewell, then, Percy Sledge - and thank you for the most beautiful soul record ever released

Percy Sledge, who died today, aged 73, wasn't exactly a looker, what with his frog's eyes, gap teeth and (let's be honest) a bit of a weight problem. But his unmistakable voice was the most poignant in soul music - and that really is saying something. "When a Man Loves a Woman" is the most beautiful soul record I've ever heard. That opening sequence of descending organ chords sets my tear ducts aflutter every time, and the entrance of his mournful, keening voice goes straight to the heart.

When it comes to beautiful soul records, the nearest contenders are James Carr's "Dark End of the Street", Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted", William Bell's "I Forgot to Be Your Lover" and Otis Redding's "(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay" - but Percy's gospelly classic tops my personal list: very few pop songs are magnificent, but this is. His voice was emotionally direct and real and without artifice: there was none of that straining for effect, none of that pointless, show-offy, melismatic mucking about or faux-emotional barking that so many of his fellow singers indulged in - he seems to have been an innately honest performer.

No follow-up was ever going to match his glorious debut, but he almost managed the trick with the truly lovely "Warm and Tender Love":

That climbed to the giddy heights of No. 34 on the UK charts. (What were we thinking?) Odd to remember how we used to take this sort of thing so much for granted. Looking back on that period, every week seemed to produce at least one absolutely classic single - often several. Percy released no less than three stunners, one after another, during 1966. The third, "It Tears Me Up", is another "deep soul" marvel:

Percy didn't trouble the charts in the 1970s, when his sort of soul music fell out of favour. But his greatest hit kept returning to the charts, thanks to its inclusion in adverts and films (it reached No. 2 here in 1987, two places higher than it managed on its initial release 21 years earlier), and that seems to have been enough to keep his career alive - which is nice, because he seems to have been a pleasant, unaffected man.

I'll leave you with another of my favourite Percy Sledge tracks - "My Special Prayer":

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