Students at Spartanburg Community College might recognize Andre' Kerr as the campus police chief. Others might have seen him playing keyboards, saxophone and rhythm guitar in bands fronted by News Channel 7 television on-air personalities Tom Crabtree and Jack Roper.
But what many might not know is that Kerr and some of his local musical pals were once full-time members of legendary soul singer Percy Sledge's touring band.
When Sledge, who is best known for his gut-wrenching rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” died April 14 of liver cancer at his home in Baton Rouge, La., Kerr couldn't help but be reminded of the time he spent with the Sledgehammer Band from 1972 to 1975.
“We had a good time and we traveled all over the Southeastern part of the country and up and down the East Coast,” said Kerr, a Jonesville native. “We played in Miami and Alabama, all the way up to Pennsylvania. We did shows in Asheville (N.C.) and Greenville. We stayed busy.”
In addition to Kerr, the Sledgehammer Band, in those days, included guitarist Ronnie Hayes of Union, bassist Pickle Eaves of Whitmire and drummer Steve Fuller of Newberry. Kerr still plays with Hayes and Eaves in Roper's The Weatherman Band and is a member of Crabtree's Rock and Roll Reunion.
Many of the concerts with Sledge were held at major hotel resorts and they'd often play six nights a week, Kerr said.
“We would stay gone eight to 10 weeks at a time before we'd get to come home,” he said. “It was really good business back then, and he always drew a crowd. I mean, they were standing outside (the venue) waiting to get in when Percy came to town.”
Kerr said the Alabama-born Sledge, whom he referred to as “the boss man,” was a rare talent.
“He'd just amaze you sometimes,” Kerr said. “I mean, he'd just fill the place up. He was a great singer and had an absolutely beautiful voice. (He was) a great show person and very friendly. (He) didn't mind meeting and talking to anybody.”
Sledge was, in Kerr's words, “just as country” as Kerr and his bandmates.
“He picked cotton and stuff, and he was just a regular ol' guy,” Kerr said. “But, man, he had a great voice and some good songs. And he didn't mind playing anything. I've got a country album he (recorded in Nashville, Tenn., in 1979), and we played country songs in his show.
“I remember he used to do stuff like 'Behind Closed Doors,' the old Charlie Rich song, or 'Mama Tried' (by Merle Haggard). He was pretty flexible.”
But, of course, R&B was Sledge's main calling card.
Sledge's landmark recording of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which he cut in Muscle Shoals, Ala., reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1966 and sold more than a million copies, becoming Atlantic Records' first gold record.
Sledge also had a smash hit with “Warm and Tender Love,” a song originally cut by Spartanburg native Joe Haywood, whom many believe actually wrote the song despite it being credited to Union native and renowned music impresario Bobby Robinson.
Kerr said the controversy surrounding the origins of “Warm and Tender Love” was never brought up during his association with Sledge.
“We never really talked about it back then. It was something I heard about later,” he said.
“But I'll tell you what, the audience loved him. We brought him onstage as 'The King of Slow Soul' and he'd do 'Dark End of the Street' and 'Cover Me.' It was just one great song after another all night.
“We only had a four-piece band (backing him), but we played a good solid rhythm while he sang the heck out of the songs.”
Kerr said he and his bandmates were put together with Sledge via their Charlotte, N.C.-based booking agency at the time.
Kerr, Hayes and Eaves left the Sledgehammer Band in 1975 to tour with Billy Joe Royal, who is most famous for his 1965 pop hit, “Down in the Boondocks,” while Fuller stayed with Sledge a little longer.
When Sledge performed a few years ago at the Newberry Opera House, Eaves attended the show.
“Pickle lives down in that area, so he went and he got to talk to Percy,” Kerr said. “It took (Sledge) a little while to figure out who he was, but once he did, he was asking about everybody else. That was really nice.”
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