Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Percy Sledge

Tim Tooher | 25th April 2015

The soul singer Percy Sledge died last week, aged 73. Tim Tooher pays tribute:

Percy Sledge wasn’t a shouter or a crooner. No, instead, he was a hurter, a carrier of pain, a bearer of burdens. His voice didn’t often growl and roar, nor did it swoop and soar. Instead he was more a vocal minimalist, erring on the side of restraint, sometimes pushing, but never too far, letting the words and the rawness of the emotion in his voice tell their story. And like the band that played behind him, he was a master at controlling space, of knowing when to let the air stand empty and when to fill it with sound. One listen to his incredible version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Kind Woman” will provide you with perfect evidence of this. It’s as deep as deep soul gets, the beat funereally slow, while Percy’s voice sails over it, as stately as a Mississippi steamer. He never does more than he has to, and though a love song, Percy’s voice is still full of hurt. Hurt was his theme. The subtext to his songs.

Born a stone’s throw from Muscle Shoals, his voice sounded like the wind blowing through the Alabama pines, somehow not quite human, both haunted and haunting, swollen with the suffering of people dislocated by love. Some singers seem like they are there not only to tell their own stories, but also the stories that belong to all of us, and Percy was undoubtedly one of them. Percy sang songs that were vulnerable in their nakedness so that in our own moments of vulnerability we’d have the protection we needed. Love hurts. You open yourself up. Percy’s voice was both the wound and the balm.

Many of his best records have the feeling of hymns. “Cover Me”, his last single of 1967, is a song about seeking his lover’s protection. Written by Eddie HInton and Marlin Greene, it’s an entreaty to his lover to envelop him totally in her love. At times, it feels like the plea of a dying man. Someone broken by love. “I’m feeling cold, I need you so, cover me,” he sings, his voice almost shivering. But by the end of the song, though the lyrics remain the same, his voice is transformed, strong and full. Almost triumphant. The organ swells, the guitar marks an almost martial beat, and Percy comes as close as he ever does to letting his voice break the bonds of restraint with which he normally guards it.

He made so many great records. “It Tears Me Up”, “Out of Left Field”, “It’s All Wrong, but It’s All Right”, “When A Man Loves A Woman” and more all come from the same place and have the same near-ethereal backwoods sound. But for me, his masterpiece is his version of “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road”.

Written by Dallas Frazier and A.L: “Doodle” Owens, “True Love…” was originally a country song, first released by minor Opry star Duane Dee before being covered stunningly by Elvis. As well as Elvis sang it though, he doesn’t come close to cutting Percy, who recorded it shortly after the King. Percy takes it at a faster pace, the band almost jauntily funky in their approach, with a stinging guitar riff, pulsating horns, but though the music might be upbeat, Percy’s voice tells a different story. He squeezes every last ounce of the required sadness and sorrow out of the lyric, a paean to suffering, a celebration of the turmoil of love. Here he pushes his voice hard at times, but, as richly as he sings, a crack runs right through it, a crack through which the radio crackle of hearts broken and hearts mended sounds. When Elvis sings the song, it’s personal. When Percy sings it, it’s universal. He’s singing for all of us. To hear Elvis sing it after Percy is almost a relief, so intense is Percy’s version.

Percy might be gone now, no longer here to sing for us, but we still have his songs. And as long as there are people in love, both hurting and happy, his songs will be doing their part to make that gravel road that little bit smoother.

Percy Sledge, November 25, 1940 – April 14, 2015.