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This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)
THE SONG: Percy Sledge, “When A Man Loves A Woman.”
THE YEAR: 1996.
THE REASONS: Mortifying car rides with parents.
The Talk—the one that usually begins, “When a man loves a woman very, very much… “—is standard middle-school fare. Call it the ultimate take-home project: mandatory, tense, and slapped together in the kitchen at the last minute. But in elementary school, I got in trouble for repeating words I couldn’t define, loud enough to offend a whole jungle gym of innocent ears. I was hauled off the swings like a playground Unabomber. I was seven.
Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” topped the charts in May 1966. It never really went away, but a quarter-century later this Southern soul classic had been rejuvenated, thanks to Michael Bolton, Meg Ryan, and the gods of adult contemporary radio. I was in second grade, a place where no one really wanted to know yet what love is. But Sledge’s classic was there to show me anyway.
One afternoon, my mother picked me up from school. She turned off the ignition, and as we sat in the parking lot she delivered an early version of The Talk. As a nurse, my mother was a pro at giving medicine to terrified patients, and her approach to unveiling the mystery of childbirth was no different—the information was delivered like a shot in the arm. She used those words, about men and women and love. I don’t remember her facial expression, because I was staring intensely at my keychains. Then it was over, and I was free to play tag as if nothing changed.
Unfortunately, everything had changed: you can’t return to life in the cave, even when you’re tricked out of it.
This is how “When A Man Loves A Woman,” one of the most beautiful songs of all time, became entwined with my deepest and earliest memory of humiliation. Both “talks” began with the same opener. But oh, how I longed for my mother’s dry, anatomical descriptions when Sledge’s voice blasted through the Volvo speakers on our way to the doctor’s office or the supermarket. In the Volvo’s backseat, I was strapped in for the longest two minutes and 51 seconds imaginable, and I would sit, nervously cutting off circulation to my arms with the seatbelt, like a failed Houdini, praying I would just disappear.
I now understood the mechanics of sex; it was the love part that made me want to flee to the mountains. What was it about that song? How can a song about love make a person feel so vulnerable?
Maybe it was Sledge’s voice, hanging onto “man,” as if its vowel sound was the only thing he has left in the world. There is a small tragedy in the way the simple, downward melody cuts the word “man” in half. The vocal is delivered so powerfully—achingly—you realize the narrator isn’t just down on his knees, he’s dropped himself to the floor.
The melody slopes back up on the second syllable of “woman.” And the caesura after “woman” is pure soul magic. The momentary silence mimics how love is both nebulous and wonderful, a formidable and fearsome concept at any age. The rest of the lyrics, about the costs and pains of his love, are sung swiftly—because after each refrain, what else is there to say? If she’s bad, he can’t see it.
No one knew better than Sledge how easily words muddy the water. The lyrics weren’t even part of the original song; Sledge improvised them. In fact, he sang so convincingly that no one even wrote them down to revise later.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” reigned on both pop and R&B charts in 1966, and it made the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (a.k.a. the Swampers) legendary just for backing Sledge. Atlantic’s founder Jerry Wexler realized early that the Swampers were hit-making gold. The song put Alabama’s emerging country-blues sound on the map, and it begat some of music’s wildest horses: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin.
It’s possible to imagine that Spooner Oldham’s groovy bassline on Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” evolved from his Sunday service-approved line on “When A Man Loves A Woman.” But Franklin and Sledge evoke helplessness differently: Franklin wrestles with the contradictions, while Sledge knows they’ll knock him down anyway.
The bottom line is that the story of vulnerability hasn’t changed. From Shakespeare to Muscle Shoals, we are in the back seat for good. And as Franklin put it, we would leave—if we could.
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
I am sure there is some reverse psychological conditioning I could do—perhaps listening to “When A Man Loves A Woman” 100 times a day, for 100 days—to hardwire my neurons into wiping the slate clean. For now, Sledge still dredges up awkward memories. I only wonder whether the song, and especially that opening line, have the same effect on other people—but I have never had the nerve to ask.