“Let’s turn on some music…” said Brian, one sultry night in 1966.
We were far from legal drinking age, but there were plenty of saloonkeepers who didn’t seem to care. One ran a bar named “Mickey’s”…a rickety dive built on stilts. Beneath it, the salt water splashed against abandoned automobile tires and washed up beer cans into the reeds and bushes on the shore. We were 18 years old, just graduating from high school, and vaguely wondering what to do next. And if we didn’t think of something fast, the U.S. Army would come looking for us.
After trolling the airwaves for a minute, we found what we were looking for:
“When a man loves a woman…can’t keep his mind on nuthin’ else…”
“You can’t beat Percy Sledge,” said our friend.
“No, you can’t beat Percy,” we replied.
“…he’d turn his back on his best friend, if he put her down,” Percy continued in the background.
“What are you going to do?” Brian asked.
“I’m going to college. I got a scholarship, remember? What else can you do? Otherwise, you’ll get drafted…besides, I thought you were going too.”
“Nah…my mother is on my case about it all the time. But I don’t want to go. I don’t see the point. I like it here. I went to look at UVA, but I don’t like preppies. And I didn’t like the smell of the place. I like the smell of this place. It’s where I like being. I’m just going to keep planting tobacco and hanging out at Mickey’s.”
“Don’t you want to make some money…get ahead in life?”
Percy over the radio: “…he’d give up all his comforts, sleep out in the rain…if she says that’s the way it oughta be…”
“What are you talking about? I already make more money raising tobacco than these jumped up college graduates make in their office jobs. And I’m outdoors doing what I like doing. I can stop and drink a beer whenever I want. Nobody tells me what to do. And besides, I don’t want to leave Dottie…”
“Yeah, but they’re going to draft you…”
“Well, I’m not worried about it. My brother is already over there, in Vietnam. He says it’s not so bad…at least where he is.”
We never saw our friend again. He was killed in a bar fight at Mickey’s a few months later. Another friend hit him in the head with a pool stick. He fell to the floor; got up; started drinking again and then collapsed. The tobacco economy disappeared soon after, too. And long gone are the days when a farmer in Southern Maryland didn’t have people telling him what to do. Now, every one of them must have a dozen inspectors and regulators looking over his shoulder.
That world of the ’60s is no more. But last night…a part of it came back, almost better than ever – Percy himself.
*** The legendary Percy Sledge was in town last night. We took the three boys to see him at the Olympia Theatre.
“Who is this guy?” Edward wanted to know, as we got off the metro.
“He is one of the greatest performers ever…one of the greatest singers ever. He is one of those rare talents that seem almost divine…too good to be purely human – like Shakespeare or Chopin.”
“Dad, aren’t you exaggerating a little?” asked one of the older boys. “Isn’t he just another one of those guys you listened to on the radio when you were growing up? And you like him so much because he reminds you of when you were young.”
“Sure…you’re probably more receptive to music when you’re young…and it stays with you because it reminds you of things that happened in your life that were important to you. You don’t want to forget them. You can’t forget them. But there was a lot of new music in the ’60s. Some of it was great. Most of it was awful. But Percy Sledge was always in a class of his own.”
The crowd in the Olympia Theater on the boulevard des Capucines was a mixture of young and old, black and white, rich and poor. But all were fans. They rose to their feet and howled when Percy Sledge came onto the stage.
Percy was dressed in a tuxedo, a round man…with a cherubic grin so wide you thought his face might crack apart. “It is a real pleasure to be back here in France,” he told the crowd. “It is a real pleasure. This was one of the first places I ever sang ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’.”
The crowd interrupted him with wild cheering.
“So I thank the people of France for being so good to me over the years. You know, I’ve been singing for 40 years. And people have been so good to me wherever I go. I thank you all. And I also want to thank the good Lord (Percy pointed up to Heaven) for giving me so much luck and so many blessings in my life.”
With the introduction out of the way…Percy and his band got to work, beginning with “Cover Me” through “Take Time” to “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Every song, every note was sensational. His voice is still so clear and strong. There’s something innocent about it…something pure. You can imagine him singing in a church choir and turning up his face, beaming. And you can imagine that something beams back at him…and lights him up with some special talent, some special grace…something that separates him from all the many forgotten blues and gospel singers you never heard of.
Percy dances on the stage…he swivels his hips. He shakes his shoulders. He bends over and cries in the microphone…and gets down on his knees when the moment calls for it.
Finally, Percy wiped the sweat off his face.
“Well, you know…time takes its toll. I have to stop now and then to catch my breath.”
And then he wound up his most famous song: ‘When a man loves a woman’.
The crowd yelled. People lit cigarette lighters and matches and held them up. A woman in front of us started sobbing.
That music is still as good as ever…
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