James Werrell

Trying to hold on to a high-class love

In this Aug. 20, 2013, photo, Tina Caruso, left, smiles as Percy Sledge signs a poster for her in Florence, Ala. Sledge, who soared from part-time singer and hospital orderly to lasting fame with his aching, forlorn performance on the classic "When a Man Loves a Woman," died April 14 in Louisiana. He was 74. (Allison Carter/The TimesDaily via AP)
In this Aug. 20, 2013, photo, Tina Caruso, left, smiles as Percy Sledge signs a poster for her in Florence, Ala. Sledge, who soared from part-time singer and hospital orderly to lasting fame with his aching, forlorn performance on the classic "When a Man Loves a Woman," died April 14 in Louisiana. He was 74. (Allison Carter/The TimesDaily via AP) AP

In the record shop in 1965, neither my friend Willie nor I had the full 80 cents we needed to buy the 45 of “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge. So we split the cost.

Willie got it for a week, then I got it for a week. We traded back and forth until the record was so scratched up it sounded like static.

Willie and I weren’t experts on women. We had barely begun to fathom girls.

But the fact that we were willing to spend our very last dimes on this searing wail of a song, located somewhere between misery and rapture, says something about its wide appeal. Even naive teenagers got it.

Sledge, who died this week of liver cancer at 74, said he had been humming the tune to “When a Man Loves a Woman” for most of his life but after recording it, gave songwriting credit to a couple of bandmates who helped him with the lyrics. Although neither of them played on the record, Sledge said he never made a dime in royalties.

Still, it immortalized him. That’s something.

He had other successful songs and cut a well received album in 1994, but “When a Man Loves a Woman” not only defined him but also set a standard for plaintive soulfulness that never really has been topped.

In 1965, it became a No. 1 hit on both the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts. When it was re-released in Europe in 1987, it hit No. 2 there.

It also was the slow dance of choice in 1966. Only the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” was in the same ballpark.

They aren’t much alike except that they share a theme of pain. And “When a Man Loves a Woman” comes closer to plumbing the anguish of trying to hold on to something with everything you’ve got even though you know it’s going to slip through your fingers.

It’s almost comical that this song about a man who loves a woman who “can bring him such misery” and who, “if she plays him for a fool, he’s the last one to know,” is a big favorite as the first dance at wedding receptions. In most cases, no doubt, the new couples just haven’t paid that much attention to the lyrics, drawn in by the stately organ track, the soaring horn work that propels the song at the end and, of course, Sledge’s singing.

But in a few cases, maybe the groom does the dance because the poor guy knows what he’s in for. Life together won’t be easy, but he’ll just have to live with that because he can’t live without her.

But repeat playings at millions of wedding receptions, appearances on movie soundtracks or its use as a theme song for commercials hasn’t dimmed the power of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Even Michael Bolton couldn’t ruin it.

It stands alone, out in the rain, waiting to explain heartbreak to anyone who listens.

Percy Sledge had women in his life – and 12 children to show for it. He had been happily married to his second wife, Rosa, since 1980, when he died.

If life is at all just, at least one of those women loved him back as hard as the man in the song loved his woman.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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