71-year-old soul pioneer Percy Sledge will perform in Macon this weekend, half a century after an experience that could have easily led him to swear off the city forever.
The black singer bought a house in a white neighborhood and it promptly burned to the ground.
The story begins a few years earlier, when Sledge was working as an orderly at a hospital near Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
"He had just come out of a room from giving a guy an enema," recalls Alan Walden, co-founder (with his brother Phil) of Capricorn Records in Macon. "He peeled the glove off, we shook hands, and I said ‘Percy Sledge, you’re gonna be a star.’”
Shortly thereafter, Sledge gave Walden his first #1 single as a manager. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was, in 1966, the fastest selling R&B record ever.
The next year, Walden’s other R&B star, Otis Redding , died in a plane crash. Walden decided to focus all his efforts on Percy Sledge, and suggested the singer move from Alabama to Macon so they could be closer together.
Alan Walden’s father, C.B., went about finding a suitable property in Macon for Sledge to purchase, just as he'd found Otis Redding’s “Big O Ranch” north of town.
“When we bought the Otis Redding ranch, there was a clause in the contract that said if any white citizens in that neighborhood objected to Otis owning that ranch, then the sale was null and void,” Walden remembers.
No one objected, so the Waldens didn’t think to include a similar clause when they helped Sledge purchase a secluded home in East Macon’s leafy Shurlington suburb.
“Two days before [Sledge] is moving in, somebody torched the house,” Walden says. “It was so obvious that it had been arson because there was a gasoline trail going in the front door.”
Walden says he tried to involve law enforcement, to no avail. He doesn’t recall any coverage in local media.
“One of the hardest phone calls I ever had to make was calling Percy to tell him they’d burned his house down,” Walden says. He stopped managing Sledge’s personal affairs, and encouraged him to stay in Alabama.
“I felt almost to blame myself for that happening, because of me wanting him to move to Macon so much,” Walden says. He’s convinced there remain people in Shurlington who know what happened.
About 55 years later, Percy Sledge is coming back to Macon to play a free show in Washington Park. The concert is part of the Second Sunday series organized by the College Hill Alliance, where Alan Walden’s daughter Jessica works.
“Back in that year, they showed him a lot of hate,” Walden said. “Now is the chance for Macon to show him a lot of love. I don’t want to see a bare spot in Washington Park, I want to see a donkey in every seat.”