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When a city loves a man: The Waldens remember Percy Sledge

April 29, 2015

 

The king of slow soul went silent.

The world—and the city that finally learned to love him—gave him one last ovation as the curtains closed.

Percy Sledge, best known for his 1966 ballad and chart-topper “When A Man Loves A Woman”, died April 14 at his Baton Rouge, Louisiana home after a bout with liver cancer. He was laid to rest April 21 as friends, family and fans honored Sledge’s talent and kindness.

“He was a kind, gentle soul,” said Jessica Walden,  co-owner of Rock Candy Tours, a Macon music history tour company, and daughter of Capricorn Records co-founder Alan Walden.

In death, his musical legacy will live on as Sledge’s popularity extended well beyond the American South.

The soulful echo of Sledge’s timeless voice rang strong in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and South Africa.

But, the tones from East Macon’s Shurlington suburb came from the dark end of the street– aching and bittersweet. 

Sledge is tied to Macon music, like many other famous names, through the Walden family.

Phil Walden began booking rhythm and blues artists for fraternity shows while he was president of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity at Mercer University. Eventually, Phil and his brother Alan formed a booking and management agency.

Phil had signed famous Soul/R&B singer “The Big O” Otis Redding before Alan joined the venture, and Phil would sign rhythm and blues group Sam and Dave shortly after Alan began working.

Alan–not wanted to be upstaged–was waiting for the opportunity to sign someone. Then, came Alan’s moment and Sledge’s break.

“Rick Hall of Fame Studios was the first to play me ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’,” Alan Walden said. “He had it presented to Atlantic [Records] on behalf of Percy’s producer and manager, Quinn Ivy, and the reaction from Jerry Wexler [music producer] was overwhelming. Test pressings were being hand delivered to every major disc jockey in the United States, a treatment never seen before in the R&B industry. Jerry Wexler was the godfather record executive of rhythm and blues and word went out that this was his baby!” Alan Walden said in an e-mail as he recalled his time with the soul singer.

Alan hopped a plane determined to sign Sledge.

Meanwhile, Sledge was struggling. According to an interview with the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, he worked in the farming fields of Leighton, before taking a job as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital in Sheffield, Alabama.

When he wasn’t in the hospital, Sledge was playing baseball and touring with the Esquires Combo.

“When A Man Love A Woman” was the first song Sledge ever recorded. He came into the studio clad in his dirty baseball uniform, with wide-eyed dreams of making it to the pros.

“I was a pretty good second baseman back then.  My dream was to play for my favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds,” Sledge said.

He stepped into the recording studio in Muscle Shoals, and began to sing the soon-to-be famous ballad.

The tune was one young Sledge hummed while picking cotton.  The lyrics came later. He improvised them at fraternity party at the University of Mississippi.

Alan landed in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to meet with Quinn. Alan made his proposal, and was off to Colbert County to meet Sledge.

When Alan arrived, he saw Sledge coming out of a room. He’d just finish giving a patient an enema.

“He still had on rubber gloves,  pulled them off and washed his hands,” Alan said. “As I was shaking hands with him, I told him ‘Percy Sledge, You are going to be a star.’ His reply was simple: ‘Do you think I can quit this job?’”

Sledge signed.

Alan headed back to Macon excited. But, those around Alan weren’t too sure that the song would sell.

“I played the demo first for Phil who liked it but predicted it would probably go to the top ’70s,” Alan said. “ Then, I played it for Otis and he also liked but predicted top ’60s. Then, I played it for my Father, “Pops” Walden. He said ‘that d*** funeral march is not going to sell s***.’”

They were wrong.

Within ten days, Sledge’s album–also entitled “When A Man Loves A Woman”–sold 1.3 million copies, Walden recalled.

“It was the biggest and fastest selling soul single in the world,” he said.  “My first signing was a huge step up the ladder of success.”

The next year, Phil and Alan suffered a major setback.

According to an interview published in the Dec. 28, 1967 issue of JET Magazine, Redding’s Beechcraft H18 took off from Cleveland. The rain came down heavy, and fog blanketed the area as Redding and his backing band, the Bar-Kays, headed to Madison, Wisconsin for their next show. Four miles from their destination, the pilot radio for permission to land.

They never made it.

The plane plunged into Lake Monona. Only Bar-Kays member Ben Cauley survived.

Trying to pick up the pieces, the Waldens turned their attention to Sledge. They tried to convince the soul singer to move from Alabama to Macon. But, Sledge has some requests.

“It was very important to [Percy] to be able to have a guest house for his mother,” Jessica said.

They found Sledge a house that matched all of his requests in the East Macon suburb of Shurlington.

Two days before Sledge made the move, someone burned the home to the ground. No one was ever arrested for the crime, but the Waldens believed that whites angered by the prospects of an African-American living in the neighborhood started the blaze.

“Everything pointed to arson,” Jessica said. “I mean there was a pile of rag [and] kerosene trails all over the place.

Alan told Sledge to stay in Alabama, and he became less involved in Sledge’s personal affairs. The pair’s professional relationship remained for a time, but the pair drifted apart, according to Jessica.

Alan and Phil, along with Wexler and Frank Fenter, established Capricorn Records in 1969. The group found a prolific Muscle Shoals session guitarist– a man by the name of Duane Allman, birthed the genre known as Southern rock and helped influence the Presidential election of 1976 that put then Governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter in the White House.

Macon left a bitter taste in his mouth, but Sledge kept moving.

He kept recording for Atlantic. He pushed out “Warm and Tender Soul” in 1966; “The Percy Sledge Way” in 1967 and “Take Time and Know Her”  in 1968. Sledge recorded an album with Capricorn I’ll Be Your Everything in 1974, but the music scene was changing.

“Capricorn was becoming a rock ‘n’ roll company and R&B had slowed down tremendously,” Alan said.

Sledge released two more records, one in 1983 and another in 1995.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” made a comeback. The ballad was covered by Michael Bolton, used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and featured in a 1994 Meg Ryan drama by the same name.

In April 1994, Sledge pled guilty to charges of federal tax evasion.  He spent six months in a halfway house, received five months probation and was ordered to pay $96,000 dollars in back taxes.

In spite of it all, Sledge toured and remained immensely popular.

In the  2005, Sledge and Alan reconnected. Sledge came back to Macon to perform at Rock-A-Billy’s.

It was the first time Jessica met Sledge.

The soul singer took to the stage and reminisced fondly of his time with Alan, Jessica said.

Years later, Jessica went to work at the College Hill Alliance and dreamed of having Sledge perform at the group’s Second Sunday concert series. They didn’t have the budget to book him, but they kept trying. Jessica’s fortune changed after speaking with a local dentist.

“ I told Dr. [James] Cassidy, I would just love to have Percy Sledge culminate one of our Second Sunday seasons. He said ‘[h]ow much do you need?’ I told him. He said ‘book em’.”

Sledge was slated to perform October 2013. It was Jessica’s job to pick him up from the airport. She asked Alan to join her. Jessica said she wanted her father to come along to surprise Sledge.

Waiting in the terminal, Alan hid behind a sign that read Percy Sledge. As soon as he saw the sign, Sledge walked over.

“I had a sign like I was his driver in front of my face,” Alan said.  “He came up and said “I’m Percy Sledge” to which I replied “You ain’t no Percy Sledge, I just saw him in Savannah and he is a big guy!” Sledge replied “this sounds like Alan Walden to me!” I dropped the sign and we hugged and hugged.”

Sledge performed to the largest Second Sunday crowd recorded.

“It was packed all the way to the sidewalk in front of the Post Office,” Alan recalled.

Under the hot October sun, Sledge gave the city his heart. This time, she treated him right.

“It made him feel loved,” Jessica said.

It would be the last time Sledge performed in Macon.

Soon after, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He underwent surgery, but still kept touring. The liver cancer claimed his life, but Sledge smiled through it.

“He was part of a story you just couldn’t make up.” Jessica said. “He was part of Macon’s fairy tale.

Behind her on a computer screen, Sledge’s funeral was being live-streamed. The mourners’ singing rose and fell in Jessica’s words, becoming more powerful as the story went on.

Then, it got quiet. The curtains closed.

The king of slow soul was silent.

*NOTE: This article was originally published on April 29, 2015. It was erased when the site went down in June. It was re-uploaded Sept. 19, 2015.

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