percy sledge

Percy Sledge

*“When A Man Loves A Woman,” the classic R&B ballad by singer Percy Sledge, who passed away last week, was like somebody I knew.   Not the man, the song.

Released on April 16, 1966, the Atlantic single could easily have been a younger kid in the neighborhood of my childhood; someone I’d notice at the corner store or glimpse frolicking at the local public swimming pool during torturously humid Oklahoma City summers. That’s how familiar I am with “When A Man Loves A Woman.” It’s as common as the air.

I didn’t care for the song when it came out—I was nine years old and it was way too mawkish and grown up for my still developing tastes–but in ’66 you couldn’t avoid it. Like any big hit that became the number one record in the country, it was played on the radio every hour on the hour. Maybe twice.

Some 20 singles later, Sledge could never replicate the massive success of “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Neither could Sledge friends/band mates bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright, who penned it. (Sledge would later insist he had also had a hand in writing the song, that he relinquished credit to them for helping him with it.) The tune solidified Sledge’s place in rock n’ roll history as a certified One-Hit Wonder.

The phrase “one hit wonder”—signifying the artist, vocal group or band who has one big hit or one that overshadows their smaller efforts, never to be repeated—can generate the condescending snicker. However, while other acts hit the top 10 over and again during a career, the hits of one hit wonders have collectively gone beyond just being chart songs. They are the air we breathe, the soundtrack of modern culture.

You don’t have to be a fan of ‘90s Eurodance or familiar with a Trinidadian-German singer named Haddaway to know his one big hit, “What Is Love.” Lyric: “What is love?/Baby don’t hurt me/don’t hurt me, no more.” See? You’ve heard it. Now you’re trying to forget it again.

Since its release in 1993, the track has been a stable of radio, dance clubs TV and film globally. “Saturday Night Live” created a recurring skit using the tune, during which actors Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell played two intense, desperate club goers in search of single women. The track lives on in TV commercials, dance music compilations and in your subconscious. You can’t kill this song with D-Con. It won’t die.

Likewise, you may not recognize the moniker Right Said Fred, but you’ve heard their brush with immortality, “I’m Too Sexy”; same undoubtedly goes for the act Tag Team and “Whoomp (There It Is).” Rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot has had other songs, but “Baby Got Back” is his cottage industry.

As you read this, somewhere in the world disco icon Gloria Gaynor is about to perform, for the zillionth time, “I Will Survive.” Gaynor herself ceased simply surviving a long time ago; she got rich performing this song (and her Jackson 5 cover, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which, technically, disqualifies her as a one hit wonder).

Immediately upon its release in 1978 “Survive,” co-written by Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren—the latter co-wrote hits for the Jackson 5, the Sylvers (“Boogie Fever”) and with Fekaris, the Peaches & Herb hits “Reunited” and “Shake Your Groove Thing”—emerged as a personal empowerment anthem.

Which is why many of these songs endure: beyond the catchy melodies, infectious beat or heart-tugging sentimentality is often a rallying verity. “Ooh Child” (things are gonna get easier). “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” (I’m TAKING that promotion, damn it). “Everybody Plays The Fool.” According to the Main Ingredient, there’s “no exception to the rule (Listen, baby!). “

In terms of sound, production and performance, many of these songs have proven immune to the depredation of time and sound-of-the-moment trend. They were and remain hard acts to follow. If you were singer Al Wilson, just how would you encore your 1973 number one hit, “Show And Tell”? Wilson tried but in the end was relegated to being “Mr. Show And Tell.”

New Jack Swing trailblazer Johnny Kemp, whose sudden passing this month at age 55 shocked fans, chose not to view following up his million-selling Teddy Riley-produced single “Just Got Paid” as a burden, instead embracing his biggest hit to the hilt. Kemp’s bodyguard was known to usher the singer through crowds with the proud announcement, “Coming through, Johnny Kemp, Just Got Paid,’ … Make some room, Johnny Kemp, Just Got Paid….’Hiya doin,’ Johnny Kemp, Just Got Paid’….”

Paid, indeed. For the holders of the copyrights—the original songwriters, music publishers, their families, estates (or those who have stolen the rights)–the biggest one-off classics have, over decades, generated multiple revenue streams well into the millions.

So woven into the fabric of modern society are these songs that many of us forgot their origin, while others never knew. Before it became a TV jingle for allergy medicine Claritin, “I Can See Clearly Now” was a 1972 number one hit for the not-exactly-a-one-hit wonder singer/songwriter Johnny Nash.

Percy Sledge could have told you that no artist sets out to have just a single hit. However, a hit is a hit. One that stops time and melds generations? All the better.

And in concert, no matter whether in an arena or a small bar, when that song’s familiar intro commences, audiences will, without fail, jump for joy and/or cry, rising to their feet as if paying homage to the National Anthem. Difference is, to this song, they know all the words. Behold the one hit wonder.

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Steven Ivory

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]