Percy Sledge died last week, 24 years after a musical assassination attempt.
Yes, anyone who loves good music is excused for considering what Michael Bolton did to “When A Man Loves A Woman” in 1991 a felony – one for which he was never charged, one for which he instead reaped huge rewards.
Two words come to mind when you think of Bolton’s musical style: overwrought and turgid. Columnist Dave Barry once wrote that if it’s a crime to go into a national park and desecrate monuments, why isn’t it a crime for someone like Bolton to desecrate songs that are, in their own way, national treasures?
Dude be thinking he’s emoting, but if emotions were dynamite, he wouldn’t have enough to blow a gnat off of a pin.
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This, however, is not about Bolton, no matter how unfortunately he is forever linked to Percy. This is a tribute to Percy Sledge, who’ll be remembered long after Michael Bolton is forgotten.
Fred Wilburn’s memory isn’t as good as it was years ago, when he owned and ran Raleigh’s Longbranch Saloon, but if you ask him what he remembers about Sledge’s appearances there, he answers immediately and gleefully.
“Lord, everything,” Wilburn told me when I called two days after Sledge died. “He was wonderful. I don’t know what it was, but he packed the house every time. He made us a lot of money. When he was here, we didn’t get home ’til three in the morning.”
Wilburn said Sledge performed at his saloon “15 or 20 times” and the joint “was out the door packed” each time.
“They would park all the way up the street when he was here. Lord help you find a parking spot.”
The lord didn’t help me find one – at least not close to the club. One night when Percy was there, I arrived at the Longbranch about 20 minutes before the show was scheduled to begin. Since the Longbranch was primarily a country music place, I figured it would be just a few longneck-beer-drinkin’ friends and me.
Au contraire. The club was already – as Wilburn said – out the door packed, and scores of cars were circling adjacent parking lots seeking a spot. By the time I found one deemed safe from a hovering tow truck, I was perhaps three-quarters of a mile away. The shoes I wore weren’t made for that kind of stepping, so I split, vowing to catch Percy the next time he was in town.
Another chance to see Percy here didn’t arrive until 2005. That’s when promoter Marianne Taylor booked Sledge, at the time recently inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to play at the Pour House. Paying customers didn’t pour into the club. I saw the sign in the window announcing his show, vowed to be there – and then got too “tired” to drive after my designated-driving buddy canceled on me.
“You missed a great show,” Taylor told me Monday when I asked about it. Fewer than 60 people attended, she said, “but he put on a show like he was playing for thousands. He got down on his knees when he sung ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ and hung out with the crowd afterwards.”
Percy was guaranteed a certain amount of money, so after Taylor paid him, she said, “I ended up having to pay the owner of the club $50 a week for a year” to make up for what she owed him.
I apologize to Taylor, who lost a bundle on the booking, for not coming – but mainly I apologize for depriving myself of the last chance to see Percy Sledge.
Sledge survived Bolton’s assassination attempt because, to his real fans, he was always about more than just “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
If you’re a man who has ever had to plead with a woman after you’ve messed up – or who has fallen for the wrong woman despite warnings from your mama and the preacher who married you to skip the wedding – you know that Percy made some of the beggingest songs ever recorded.
“Cover Me,” “Out of Left Field,” “Take Time To Know Her,” “It Tears Me Up.” Those songs alone would qualify him for the Begging Dudes Hall of Fame.
If you’re a novice at heartache, don’t go listening to all those songs at one time. If you insist, though, make sure you hide the brown liquor and any sharp objects. Speaking of brown liquor, there wasn’t a bootlegger in Rockingham worth that title who didn’t have a stack of Percy’s 45s to serve up with their pork chop sandwiches and Johnny Walker Red.
The easiest thing in the world is to call Percy a soul singer. He was, but he was also country. Listen to him sing “My Special Prayer” and tell me you don’t hear some Conway Twitty up in there.
Fred Wilburn of the Longbranch summed up Percy better than any eulogy you’ll read: “I don’t know what he had, but he had it.”
Saunders: 919-836-2811 or firstname.lastname@example.org