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DAVE DAVIES, Host:

The great singers from the golden era of soul tend to fall into one of two categories, there's gospel soul, whose vocal technique comes from the church, with singers like Aretha Franklin or Wilson Pickett, who actually started singing in church. And then there's country soul, which tends to be quieter and sung by people with rural backgrounds, like Arthur Alexander, Swamp Dog, and the master of country soul, Percy Sledge.

Rhino Records has recently released Sledge's complete Atlantic recordings. Here's rock historian Ed Ward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN")

PERCY SLEDGE: (Singing) When a man loves a woman, can't keep his mind on nothing else. He'd trade the world for a good thing he's found. If she is bad, he can't see it. She can do no wrong. Turn his back on his best friend if he puts her down

When a man loves a woman...

ED WARD: Percy Sledge was unhappy. His high-school sweetheart had dumped him and gone to LA to be a model, taking one of his best friends with her. It was Christmas Eve 1965, and he was performing with the Esquires Combo at a health club in Sheffield, Alabama. In the middle of the set, he just lost it.

Just hit me a chord on the keyboard, he told the organist, "Pop" Wright, and he began improvising a song, "Why Did You Leave Me, Baby?" Quin Ivy, who'd been producing some records locally, was there and invited him to record it.

It was the moment Percy had been waiting for ever since he'd left Leighton, Alabama, for Muscle Shoals - a larger town where Arthur Alexander and Percy's cousin, Jimmy Hughes, had already recorded hits. He's been bugging Jimmy to tell Rick Hall, the owner of Fame Studios, where Jimmy had recorded, about him.

There were a bunch of young white guys hanging around the studio writing songs and playing in the house band, including Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham and Jimmy Johnson, and when Percy approached them with "Why Did You Leave Me, Baby," they thought the melody was great but the lyrics needed work.

Sledge went to his mother's house and worked steadily for three weeks, and finally came back to Quin Ivy with the new version. Explaining his absence, he told Ivy, When a man loves a woman, he can't keep his mind on nothing else. Ivy's ears perked up, and he and Percy and a few of the other guys got to work, and before long, they set Percy up in the vocal booth and started recording.

Meanwhile, in New York, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records was in search of a new studio in the South to record soul artists in, and when he got a call from Rick Hall about "When a Man Loves a Woman," he asked to hear it. He signed Percy Sledge right away and took the record and added some extra horn parts in a Memphis studio, then rush-released it.

Doesn't it sound better now? He asked Hall during a phone call. Hall had to tell him that, in the rush, Wexler had released the original version. It sold like crazy, hitting the top of the soul and pop charts in early 1966.

Three months later, Sledge had another hit, "Warm and Tender Love," but it was with Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham that he was to do his most spectacular work; they seemed to be able to write songs that fit his sense of drama perfectly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, ""IT TEARS ME UP"")

SLEDGE: (Singing) I see you walk with him. I see you talk to him. It tears me up. It tears me up. And start my eyes to crying. Oh, oh, I can't stop crying. I see him kiss your lips, and squeeze your fingertips. It tears me up.

WARD: Both "Warm and Tender Love" and "It Tears Me Up" were hits in 1966 - Top 10 soul, Top 20 pop - against heavy competition. But the greatest Penn/Oldham masterpiece in his career, didn't do very well at all. Maybe there was just too much else happening in 1967, or maybe the song was too subtle for the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF LEFT FIELD")

SLEDGE: (Singing) When least expecting it, based seeing it. Bring light to the darkness, oh what a thing. I needed someone to call my own. Suddenly out of left field. Out of left field, out of left field. Out left field, love came along. I was walking down a railroad that went nowhere. Building dreams that were all left by the wayside. Then out of the blue. Honey, I found you. Oh yeah.

Sugar and peaches is a paradise thing...

WARD: He kept recording, though, with a remarkably eclectic range of material: country songs, Ray Charles songs, Bee Gees songs - and made them all his own. There are probably no two soul singers as dissimilar as Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett, but listen to what he does with Pickett's first hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FOUND A LOVE")

SLEDGE: (Singing) I found a love. I found a love. I found a love that I need, whoa yeah.

WARD: "I Found A Love," though, was only released in Germany, which was symptomatic of where soul music was in 1974, in decline in the United States. Percy was still big in Europe, and he was huge in South Africa, where his 1970 tour in the middle of a cultural boycott didn't help his image back home.

But as times changed, Percy Sledge didn't. He was nominated for a Grammy in 1995, and in 2005, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's still at it, not touring as much as he once did, but still playing, mostly in the South. Go see him if you get a chance.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in the south of France and blog at wardinfrance.blogspot.com. He reviewed "Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings."

You can listen to three tracks on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download Podcasts. You can also join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SLEDGE: (Singing) Come, come, spread your presence of love all over me. Oh, can't you see...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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