Writers Pen Only One Hit: But… “When A Man Loves A Woman” Is A Definite Hit

Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright will go down in history for writing the classic “When A Man Loves A Woman” – the only song the pair ever wrote!

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Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright will go down in history for writing the classic “When A Man Loves A Woman” – the only song the pair ever wrote!

As songwriters, can you imagine never writing another song after writing such a beautiful piece of material? These two men never did, but they will forever live in pop music history for this standard.

Not only has it been a classic chart hit, but various versions have followed. Bette Midler did it for the film The Rose; Michael Bolton took it to the top of the charts and took home a Grammy in 1991. Airplay from his rendition caused it to be named BMI’s Song of the Year for 1993. A British jeans ad in 1987 featured Sledge’s original version, sending it once again up the United Kingdom pop list. And it was the opening theme to the film The Crying Game. Today, it’s the title of a new film, When A Man Loves A Woman.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling to me that the song is still doing what it’s doing,” said Lewis, who wrote the words to Wright’s melody. “At the time we wrote it, it didn’t hit me what having an “a” side release meant until the song was well on its way to number one.”

Lewis, now in his 40’s, was at the time a teenager in Sheffield, Ala. He was playing bass with the Esquires Combo, a local band he joined when he was 14. Percy Sledge joined the group in 1965, Lewis’ senior year in high school.

Wright, one of the founders of the Esquires, was a few years older than Lewis. Also from Alabama, he remembers the first time he heard the song on the radio. “It was just incredible,” he said. “There was just this feeling that went all the way through me. But I never thought it would last this long.”

How did the two young men write such a powerful song?

“We were set to play a Friday night dance, and we were practicing…I was messing around on the organ when this riff came up out of nowhere. There was no one in the club but us. I told Calvin to go home and write some words,” Wright recalled.

Lewis wrote “Why Did You Leave Me” (the original title) on Saturday, and when he, Wright and Sledge had rehearsal on Sunday, he played it for them.

“We sat together, put things in, took things out. This was going to be Percy’s audition for producers in town,” Wright continued the story. “The only one who would listen was Quin Ivy.”

Ivy, a local businessman and disc jockey for WLAY Radio, was just starting Norala Sound Studio for local talent. He liked the demo, but a burst of inspiration while he was on the air one afternoon caused him to ask them to re-write the song.

“He called me and said ‘Do you mind if we change some of the lyrics,” Lewis remembered. “He wanted to diminish the negative…make it more of a love story in the bridge…and call it “When A Man Loves A Woman.” He didn’t take credit (as a songwriter), he just felt like it could be better. So we kept some of the phrases, worked on it for several weeks, and spent quite a bit of time in the studio.”

Wright and Lewis didn’t play on the session when Sledge recorded it, but musicians from Rick Hall’s Fame Studio did. Hall heard the song, called Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records in New York City, and Sledge became and Atlantic artist. As “When A Man Loves A Woman” began to climb the charts, Sledge got more and more dates and he had to go out and play. Lewis and Wright were still in high school and weren’t going to graduate for a couple more months, so they opted to stay in school.

Plus, Wright adds, they couldn’t pay the two men what they were asking…”We wanted $200 a night, and they were only paying $100.”

The two men have kept in touch, but have never written another song. Wright works regularly with his Decade Band, playing a blend of music similar to the Esquires Combo. Lewis followed a career in accounting and insurance services. He hasn’t let go of his music and says he’s been trying his band at gospel music after converting to the Pentecostal faith in 1976.

And so they wish they’d continued with their writing?

“Well, a couple of nights after we worked up “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he hit on another one,” Wright admitted. “It had an uptempo riff…it was super bad! But when we went back the next night, we lost it. We would’ve had another winner there.”

As for advice to others, Lewis said, “When the song became a hit, that told me you never know where the breaks are. And its continuing success reminds me to encourage people to keep writing.”

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