Generally, I find myself without the tools to write about music in any purposeful or relevant manner. But in the case of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” (kill yourself if you thought I meant Michael Bolton), the simplistic, linear build of the song tells a story to me so clearly that I can break it down, moment by moment, for the enjoyment of all. Welcome to my brain.
If you don’t own the track, you can find it on Spotify, or listen to the audio on YouTube here.
00:00 – The song kicks off with some somber organ playing, quiet bass plucking and light cymbal taps. It’s all very calm; nothing surprising or out of the ordinary here. This accompaniment could conceivably be underscoring a nice wholesome church song.
00:15 – And then, out of the void and prefaced by a quick roll on the snare drum, comes the brassy, soulful croon of Percy Sledge. Percy starts laying out his understanding of the world, defining for us all what exactly happens to a man when he loves a woman.
When a man loves a woman,
Can’t keep his mind on nothin’ else,
He’d change the world for the 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 put her down.
The snare that announced our prophet’s arrival joins the accompaniment, but Percy still sounds out of place. That somber organ keeps on like nothing has changed, completely ignorant of our bold, passionate vocalist.
00:42 – But there, right at the end of the first refrain, something happens. As Percy’s “down” starts to wain, a guitar is heard for the first time, jangling its way out of the void and sticking around for the whole next refrain, as the man’s argument begins to gather steam.
When a man loves a woman,
He’ll spend his very last dime
Tryin’ to hold on to what he needs.
He’d give up all his comforts and sleep out in the rain,
If she said that’s the way it ought to be.
01:13 – And then the big reveal. As Percy launches into a stanza that is different than the preceding ones and is never copied by any that follow, we learn that our serenader is not just crooning this explanation of the birds and the bees out to the universe for its own edification. No, he is singing directly to some girl, laying out his own personal devotion, not just that of all men as a gender.
Well, this man loves you, woman.
I gave you everything I have,
Tryin’ to hold on to your hot blood long.
Baby, please don’t treat me bad.
We also learn that Percy’s feeling a little exasperated here. Despite him constantly pulling out all the stops for this girl, he’s still reduced to pleading with her for a little respect. This illumination in storytelling is complimented by an emergent chorus of back-up singers who take over the somber tones previously provided by the organ. The sound is lush and full, with the guitar crescendoing into even more prominence, twanging out a riff that holds its own against the lead singer.
01:39 – It all builds to a full stop, drum pounding rhythmically until we cut to…
01:41 – …silence.
01:42 – But we come back instantly from that full stop, losing no steam at all.
When a man loves a woman,
Down deep in his soul,
She can bring him such misery.
If she is playin’ him for a fool,
He’s the last one to know.
Lovin’ eyes can never see.
Percy returns to the framework of the first two stanzas but there’s a little despair sneaking in here after the soul-baring that just occurred. A woman can do wrong, and Percy’s starting to think she might be doing exactly that.
However, he’s backed this time around with a stronger musical accompaniment that firmly roots his appeal in place, instead of the contrast we had the first time around. The girl chorus and organ work together to the same somber tune as before, but this for sure ain’t no innocent church song anymore.
02:11 – Percy has hit his stride now and doesn’t change his approach one bit.
When a man loves a woman
he can do no wrong,
he can never hug some other girl.
In fact, that previous bit where it sounded like things might be coming to an end; yeah, that was all a feint to draw her in and break the cold shoulder he’s been getting. Because here the Sledgester even hints that there may have been a dispute about some unfaithfulness on his part, perhaps a misconstrued hug with a female admirer. But the possible suggestion of guilt is completely missed by Percy’s audience, as she’s already started to come around to his side. How do we know she’s starting to cave? Horns. The framework and accompaniment stay exactly the same for the next bit, with the subtle addition of brass. Those horns stand in for the girl that this song has all been for the benefit of. Percy’s worked his magic and she’s starting to play along.
02:26 – And then he’s got her. We move into another iteration of the same tune and the horns start wailing away, completely giving over to his convincing swagger, as he drives the message home one more time for emphasis.
Yes, when a man loves a woman
I know exactly how he feels,
‘Cause baby, baby, you’re my pearl.
02:42 – She’s his pearl. How could she not be? Well done, Mr. Sledge. Well done.