John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“It Tears Me Up”

When soul singer Percy Sledge died I immediately thought of this classic. Less known than his big hit, but just as powerful.

By - Apr 24th, 2015 02:05 pm
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Percy Sledge at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Concert.Photo  by Carol M. Highsmith Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Percy Sledge at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Concert.Photo by Carol M. Highsmith Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Percy Sledge is in heaven. There is no doubt in my mind. He left the earth last week after a battle with cancer and if he didn’t travel straight up it was because he lingered to take one last look at the place he made so much happier.

In 1995 I had the unforgettable experience of playing with him on two songs. He was booked as a guest on a pilot for a TV version of Michael Feldman’s Whad’ya Know. (Feldman is in town with his show this week.) That show never made it to the air, but I was part of the house band, along with his regular guys and the incomparable Clyde Stubblefield, the funky drummer from James Brown’s band. (I bet they felt honored to be up there with me!)

Percy, who resembled an American Buddha, was small and round with a smile that all but wrapped around his face. He had a new recording he was promoting, but he couldn’t do any gig without singing “When A Man Loves A Woman.” That would be treason. Now, I try to not let anything stop me in my tracks, but I almost fainted at rehearsal when he turned around and sang this song (number 53 on Rolling Stones top 500) two feet from my face. A powerful ray of pure soul and emotion just about knocked me to the ground, but I managed to not drop my guitar and somehow remember the chords — but only just.

The one story I’ve heard repeated is that little Percy was planted at the end of cotton rows in Alabama to sing for those who completed theirs. This was their reward. He is also quoted as saying he had been singing the melody that made his career his whole life, so maybe some of those pickers got to hear an early version of “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

That song went straight to number one and ended his career toiling in fields and hospitals. Soon he was on stages everywhere and putting out albums. He didn’t ever make it to the top again, but he got close with many more songs that were just as good. Paul Cebar recently played one of my favorites on his show, “Out Of Left Field,” a great one penned by the ubiquitous Dan Penn. That may be his finest song, but there’s another slab of raw emotion that grabbed me the first time I heard it. When anyone mentions his name, it’s the one that pops into my head: “It Tears Me Up.”

A lot of soul ballads are in 6/8 time. You may not know what this means, but you almost certainly know the feel. Both songs mentioned earlier feature that sticky time signature, as do a whole pile of Otis Redding’s ballads. The magic of three, something Bob Dylan couldn’t quite explain in his book, Chronicles, is real. This song feels more like a simple waltz. I never even realized that until I listened to it today. It’s hard to hide a waltz in plain sight, but Percy, along with the boys from Muscle Shoals played everything so naturally you don’t think about it.

As usual Dan Penn, along with Spooner Oldham, came through with a masterpiece of understatement in writing this song — all that was left to do was let Percy run with it:

I see you walk with him,
I see you talk to him,
It tears me up
It tears me up
And start my eyes to cryin’
Oh, oh, I can’t stop cryin’

I see him kiss your lips,
And squeeze your fingertips,
It tears me up
It tears me up
I feel like I’m dyin’
Oh, oh, I must be dyin’

It’s a cold, cold world I’m livin’ in
I turn my back and there you are with my best friend
Oh sometimes we pass on the street darlin’
And you looked at me and you can say, “I’m sorry, my sweet”
Maybe just saying I’m sorry would be enough
But then you’d look back at him, with your perfect smile,
And that’d make me feel kind of rough.
Oh darlin It tears me up

I see you smile at him,
You’ll never tire of him
It tears me up.
It tears me up.
But there ain’t nothin I can do now
Baby can’t you see I’m still in love with you
Oh, can’t you see I’m still in love with you, baby

Still waitin for something that I cannot have
Oh, baby, nothin’ tears me up so bad,
Can’t you see that I’m still in love with you baby
Oh, that tears me up so bad now baby

© Penn, Dan / Oldham, Spooner

What’s special in this song is that middle bit where Percy testifies like a preacher. Gospel, soul and and blues, uncomfortable cousins all, rely on great vocal performances. That this is one is beyond doubt. You can’t lie and sing well at the same time. Some great singers enter a song through the lyrics. They understand every nuance and are able to deliver meaning through a process that’s equal parts intellect and emotion. I would never say that Percy Sledge didn’t study lyrics, but his sound and feel are way deeper than words. They are almost pre-language. He’s a good example of someone who could probably sing the phonebook. Most of his songs were from a broken-hearted perspective and a lot were ballads. Few have ever taken it as deep as he did.

Something I find to be the saddest footnote in his obituary is the fact that his name will forever be linked with Michael Bolton. The stringy-haired poseur made a travesty of “When A Man Loves A Woman,” over-singing it and adding a shreddy and completely inappropriate guitar solo. To add injury to insult, Sledge had let two other guys grab the credit and and the royalties, a tale that’s all too familiar, so he didn’t cash in either time.

But Percy’s is in heaven now, reaping his reward and more than likely still singing.

4 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “It Tears Me Up””

  1. Anonymous says:

    “The stringy-haired poseur… over-singing it…” You have captured the description of Bolton that I have always held but have been unable to express. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Another great article about a fabulous and under heard song–one of my faves from Percy Sledge. Great stuff, John. Dropping song science on our heads and souls.

  3. Anonymous says:

    How great that you got to play with Percy Sledge! Bob Dylan (whose poetic songs I love) left a lot out in Chronicles (not as well-written as it could have been). Again,your column is unique and makes us appreciate so much music that we’ve always just taken for granted.

  4. Paul Lothary says:

    I came here out of interest in the history and time signature for “it tears me up”. You gave me much more and a great read, thank you.

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