104 East Second Street, Sheffield
In 1965, FAME songwriter and WLAY disc jockey Quin Ivy opened Norala Recording Studio in downtown Sheffield, across the street from the Tune Town record store (which Ivy also owned). The fledgling studio was technically a competitor, but FAME owner Rick Hall had given the new venture his blessing.
“I saw that Rick was getting a lot of calls from people who were interested in making a record. Rick would give them some outlandish price because he just didn’t have time to fool with them.”
Seeing an opportunity to take some of this unwanted business off Hall’s hands, Ivy proposed opening his own studio, “and Rick said he thought it was a great idea.” Hall even let Ivy borrow FAME’s rhythm section, although Ivy had to compensate the musicians in free studio time initially because he didn’t have the money to pay them. “I had a total investment in that studio of $7,000,” Ivy later recalled. “It was put together on a shoestring.”
Norala’s fortunes began to change when Ivy and his partner Marlin Greene oversaw the production of Percy Sledge’s iconic single “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Born in Leighton, Alabama, in 1941, Sledge had begun his singing career as a member of gospel quartet The Singing Clouds, which also featured his cousin Jimmy Hughes. By the early 1960s, Sledge was working as a hospital orderly while playing secular music at local fraternity parties as front man of the popular Esquires Combo. When Ivy heard Sledge performing with the group at the Elks Club in Sheffield, he arranged to produce a record with the singer.
According to Sledge, he was inspired to write “When a Man Loves a Woman” when his girlfriend left him to pursue a modelling career after he had been laid off from a job doing construction work. Grateful for the help of Esquires bandmates Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright with writing the music (and perhaps feeling sorry that they were not tapped to play on the recording) Sledge gave the pair credit for composing the song.
“We cut [it] in mono on a little two-track machine with me engineering… Roger Hawkins played drums, along with the rest of the Fame section from those days: Spooner Oldham on organ, Junior Lowe on bass, and Marlin on guitar. I don’t think I ever got a dime for that session… but I was very glad to be on the date.”
Other musicians featured on the recording included horn players Jack Peck, Bill Cofield and Dan Pollard. Florence native Donna Jean Thatcher, who had already recorded a single of her own (“I’m Out of Touch”) at Norala, contributed backing vocals.
“Quin called and said he had a song he wanted me to hear. I had him bring it over here one Sunday and play it, and he asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I had him play it again. I said, ‘It’s a smash.’”
Hall turned out to be right, of course. He helped Ivy secure a deal for the single’s release by pitching it to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, and “When a Man Loves a Woman” became a runaway success, spending two weeks at the top of the pop charts, and topping the R&B charts for four weeks.
Now a million-selling producer, Ivy again took a cue from Rick Hall and established his own record labels, Quinvy and South Camp, both of which were distributed by Atlantic. Eventually, Ivy was able to build a larger, more modern facility at 1307 Broadway Street, and moved his newly rechristened Quinvy Recording Studio there in mid-1968.
The following year, Ivy sold the 2nd Street building to Billy Cofield, who had played saxophone on “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Cofield and his partner, James Thomas, then reopened the facility as Paradox Recording Studio. The venture was short-lived, however, and in 1973, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio leased the building and converted it into a writer’s workshop and demo studio. The Swampers initially planned to call the new studio 104 East Second Street, but it came be known officially as Muscle Shoals Sound Studio B. Outfitted with a 16-track recorder and mixing board, the studio even had its own rhythm section, comprised of Lenny LeBlanc on bass, Randy McCormick on keyboards, and Jimmy Evans on drums.
The original Quinvy building on 2nd Street in Sheffield no longer stands. Its location is commemorated by an Alabama Tourism Department historical marker, erected in 2014.
The success of “When a Man Loves a Woman” made Sledge one of the most recognizable voices in the “country-soul” genre pioneered by fellow Shoals native Arthur Alexander. He followed his breakout hit with a string of chart singles, including “Warm and Tender Love,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Take Time to Know Her” and “Cover Me.” Sledge continued his recording partnership with Ivy through the mid-1970s while touring internationally and becoming especially popular in the Netherlands, Germany and South Africa. His career enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s, when Levi’s featured “When a Man Loves a Woman” in a popular commercial, resulting in the song re-entering the charts in the United Kingdom. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and, later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame prior to his death in 2015.