Soul survivor

Like many of the legends from soul music’s heyday, Percy Sledge has always leaned upon a higher power. Now approaching 70, it’s faith that is at the forefront of Sledge’s mind.

“I thank God for giving me the ability and the health to keep on doing this,” says Sledge with a hushed voice in a phone interview with the Xpress.

Throughout the 30-minute phone conversation, conducted on a Sledge’ cordless home telephone that makes even the slightest anecdote sound like the static-y pops and cracks from a found 45 rpm single, Sledge frequently stops to repeat and reaffirm his faith to himself. Seemingly shy and soft spoken, his answers are peppered with “sir” and “thank you,” carefully delivered in a reserved, yet sweet, Southern voice.

“I really thank God for letting me bring my music and my songs to my fans all across the world,” Sledge says, almost as if it’s a mantra that helps him deal with the heapings of praise foisted upon him. “I know my faith is the reason why I’ve been around so long.”

This soft spoken legend — whose biggest hit single, 1966’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” has become part of musical history — is not just another singer who had a lucky break and a popular song. He’s a relic of sorts, one of the last living soul singers from the great Atlantic Records roster of the 1960s (which also included Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Sam & Dave), and a living, breathing museum of soul.

And if you ask him, he’ll tell you that music is the universal language.

“I think that when I sing these songs, you can tell what I’m feeling just by looking at me,” Sledge says. “When you see me live, even if you don’t speak the language, you can tell what I’m going through just by seeing me. It’s mostly within yourself that you can express, and when you do that you can touch people’s hearts.”

This hard-to-describe force behind the music seems to echo Sledge’s faith. He talks about it in almost mystical terms, as if soul was more a kind of magic than a genre of music.

“I’ve had people from all over the world tell me, so I know it must be true,” he says, “that this music just helps you relax and stay in a good mood. I think the music that I sing is so relaxing, that you can do anything in the world to it.”

Ironically, it was the troubled and turbulent era of the 1960s which saw the establishment of the soul music form. Pain, heartbreak and conflict informed most of the great works of soul, and which helped define the movement as being distinct from the rock-music movement, which was increasingly oriented towards a white audience. As Sledge sees it, that lack of cultural turmoil is one reason why soul has faded as an art form.

“My generation went through so many hardships that you can see it in the way we carry ourselves in our lives,” he says. “Young people today have never truly gone through hard times, and so they don’t know what hard times are about. I sung in the fields picking cotton, and all of this came from nature. The way I sing came from the true nature of me, and the way I lived my life.”

He may be onto something. Soul, or at least the breed of soul that Sledge’s generation gave to the world, is a dying art. His powerful, heart-wrenching phrasing is like the cry of a whooping crane — almost as notable for its rarity as its beauty. And while Sledge seems to have quite a few performances left in him, the fact that he has outlived most of his contemporaries is a grim reminder that there may be precious few chances for local devotees to hear his music live.

So, sit up and take notice, people. There’s a legend among us.

Percy Sledge will perform a pair of shows at the Eaglenest in Maggie Valley on Saturday and Sunday, May 23 and 24. Tickets are $39.95 to $89.95. For more information, call 926-9658.

— Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.

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