I probably started hearing “When a Man Loves a Woman” around the time Percy Sledge originally recorded it, in 1966. The song has a specific format in that the first line starts right away with the chorus (what we call "the hook") rather than the verse. So the title hits you right off the top. In Hit Songwriting 101, you learn that there is a craft of writing pop music where you tell a bit of a story, but then you quickly get to the chorus. We even have a joke about it: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” In this case, the title to the song are the first words Percy sang. Percy’s performance of “When a Man Loves a Woman” is definitive and made the song a classic.
That beginning creates an indelible melody and sets a scene that elicits an emotional response. Oh… This is about a man being in love. During my shows, this is the one moment when I get off stage and actually go out into the middle of the audience to perform the song. It's funny when I watch people move their lips to the lyrics, they all yell out those first few words, but then they'll often mumble through the rest. Then it comes back around to “When a man loves a woman,” and everyone sings along again. There's just something very direct and clear about that message.
It’s universally received as this powerful love song, but when you really go through the lyrics you realize how deep it is—“if she’s bad/he can’t see it/she can do no wrong,” she can bring him misery, she can play him for a fool, and so on—it’s about how vulnerable you are when you’re in love. And it’s about how devastated you would be if something goes wrong. You will "spend your last dime, give up all your comforts, sleep out in the rain." “When a Man Loves a Woman” is about potential devastation. You only hope there’s going to be a happy conclusion. In one sense you're saying, “You’re my world, you’re my everything,” but really it means, “Please, be careful with me, don't do me wrong.”
All songs remind me of experiences in my life, though not necessarily about one particular person. There are probably moments for everyone in “When a Man Loves a Woman” that aren’t restricted to one person; it’s just about that feeling when you’re all in, you’re exposed, you’re completely human and vulnerable. That’s what happens when you fall in love. And whatever is in my heart at that moment finds its way into delivering the song live.
I don’t know exactly when I decided to record “When a Man Loves a Woman” myself. I’d already experienced 9 albums and zero success in 18 years. I was signed to Epic when I was 16 and didn’t have a hit until I was 34. All along the way, I'd meet people, including Clive Davis, who heard something in my voice that they thought had commercial potential. I only finally had large success with Soul Provider in 1989. That album sold 12 million worldwide, and included a version of “Georgia On My Mind” by Ray Charles, who was probably the single biggest influence on me as a kid.
When you’ve been striving for that long, you don’t take success for granted — it only makes you work harder. So I went right into preparing for my next album, Time Love and Tenderness, and I wanted to put “When a Man Loves a Woman” on it. After I'd recorded “Georgia,” radio programmers were like, “Who’s this white kid from Connecticut?” I actually took that as a compliment, and as inspiration to take to the microphone with another favorite, always conscious that my own interpretation must be respectful to the original composition. You can take a lot heat for stepping up to something that’s already a standard.
Just when I was about to turn in my album, Tommy Mottola, the president of Sony, came into the studio. He said, “You know what would be huge, Michael? If you record ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ this would be an enormous record.” I smiled and said, “I’m really glad you said that, Tommy, because we actually recorded it.”
But then I got an unexpected response from one executive at the label. He said, “We just heard the album, it’s great, but there’s one song that needs to come off… ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’” Apparently, someone inside the building had done this sort of analysis of the album, a small essay, and when she got to the song, she tore it apart, primarily based upon the fact that there was no reason for anyone to ever re-record this song. I thought, Wow, what they’re saying is that I haven’t really done anything special with it.
I didn’t want to take it off the record, so I tried to improve it. I called upon my producer Walter Afanasieff and dragged him out of his family vacation to re-record the song with me ... eight more times. We worked tirelessly and listened back. My first version was still the strongest. I went back to the label and insisted, the song stay on the album.
And then, everyone in radio started playing my version of “When a Man Loves a Woman” even before its release as a single. That’s a good problem to have. It went straight to number one, I won a Grammy for vocal performance. It just skyrocketed and drove the album to sell over 16 million worldwide. Being able to record that song was one of the most important experiences of my life.
It’s Percy’s performance that I owe most to, in addition to the composer’s gift. It was Percy who first brought the song to life. I can’t stress enough the importance of his delivery of the song to the world. Another person’s interpretation might still have been a hit song, but not one with the staying power of Percy’s. A song by itself won’t do it, and talent by itself won’t do it. Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” is so deeply ingrained in all of us, it’s in our DNA—five or six generations of people all around the world.
The only time I ever got to meet Percy was a few years later, when I had the opportunity to perform “When a Man Loves a Woman” with Percy himself. It was live in Chicago, for VH1—a pared down, invite-only, special guests event. He was so generous and just a wonderful human being. And then he sang it beautifully. You often hope in vain that, when you meet someone you admire so much, that they'll live up to your idealization. Percy far exceeded. Singing with him is forever a moment in my life I remember and carry with me.
Everyone in the audience and backstage was gasping, “Oh my god, that’s Percy Sledge!” He started speaking to the audience and said, “I was on tour, and I heard my song on the radio, but it wasn’t me singing it. It was Michael Bolton. It was my hit, and now it’s his.”
I said, “No, no, no, it will always be yours. That song will always be yours.”
Michael Bolton is a singer/songwriter.