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Proving There's Much More to Sledge, Burke Than a Hit Single

February 13, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN

**** PERCY SLEDGE, "The Very Best of Percy Sledge" Rhino/Atlantic

Percy Sledge sings the title phrase of "When a Man Loves a Woman" with such passion and conviction that the single stands as one of the defining records in American soul music.

Though the record only spent two weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts in 1966, it is invariably included on lists of the all-time great singles and has been a radio staple for decades now.

Indeed, the impact of the single was so strong that it has virtually overshadowed the rest of the Alabama native's recording career. But there is more to Sledge than "When a Man Loves a Woman," as this 17-track retrospective demonstrates.

Like most soul singers, Sledge sings about the wonder and the pain of romance, but his specialty was the latter. In the album's liner notes, David Gorman declares, "Percy Sledge could squeeze a tear from 'Happy Birthday' if he decided there was a reason to."

Also like many of the great soul singers, Sledge listened a lot to country music as a youngster.

"The only radio station we got [in rural Alabama] was country music," he says. "So, I learned to sing from guys like . . . Hank Williams, Jimmy Reed, Marty Robbins. That's all I knew. We didn't hear rock 'n' roll but for about 15 minutes real late at night."

After singing in church and then in bar bands, Sledge got together in the mid-'60s with record producers Quin Ivy and Marlin Greene in Sheffield, Ala., and recorded "When a Man Loves a Woman," which was then released by Atlantic Records.

The same producers worked with Sledge on 13 of the other Atlantic recordings featured in this collection, including such R&B hits as "Take Time to Know Her," "It Tears Me Up" and "Cover Me."

Now in his late 50s, Sledge continues to tour and is planning to record an album soon for Virgin Records. He doesn't have the bold individuality of a Ray Charles or an Al Green, but he sings in a style that is both affecting and heartfelt.

*

**** Solomon Burke, "The Very Best of Solomon Burke," Rhino/Atlantic. Burke is another great soul singer whose history for all too many fans is tied to a single record. Unlike label-mate Sledge, however, Burke's pop fans and his R&B fans may be talking about different records.

To pop audiences, the Philadelphia native may be best known for the country-accented restraint of 1961's "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms"), which was his first pop hit.

In the R&B world, however, Burke enjoyed his biggest chart success with the more vigorous, horn-driven "Got to Get You Off My Mind," which was No. 1 on the R&B charts for three weeks in 1965.

Either way, however, Burke is a vocalist with tremendous feeling. He's also a superb storyteller, and the liner notes contain his recollections about many of the 16 singles contained in this package.

Burke, who is now in his 60s, has been cited as an influence by countless soul singers. But the howling intensity in such tracks as "Cry to Me" and "I'm Hanging Up My Heart for You" was also certainly heard and admired by a young John Fogerty.

Despite the different approaches, these Burke and Sledge packages make wonderful companion pieces.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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