14 January 2010

The Dictionary of Soul: Teddy Pendergrass

The screaming women called him "Teddy Bear." At the beginning of the 1980s he was a superstar, the sexiest baritone on record. He could be magnetic on stage, but his performances could border on camp. The image of his bearded, rugged features combined with the open shirts and medallions was seemingly everywhere.

Then, in March 1982, Teddy Pendergrass was driving his Rolls Royce when the brakes or electrical system failed and the car careened into a highway divider and a tree, and spinal cord injuries rendered him a quadriplegic. After extensive physical therapy, he would resume his career and even though the loss of breath control effected his voice, many of his new records became hits.

Theodore DeReese Pendergrass Jr. was born in South Carolina and raised in Philadelphia. Influenced at an early age by the gospel and soul music, he dropped out of high school and worked as a drummer in R&B and doo-wop groups. In 1969, he joined Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a long-standing local group.

Signed to Philadelphia International Records, the Blue Notes benefited from the production magic of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Pendergrass moved from behind the drum kit to lead vocalist, and the hits started to flow. The duo's distinctive production, a sound emphasizing sweet strings and big beat, was paired with Pendergrass' powerhouse of a voice, and the result was the monster hits "If You Don't Know Me By Now" (1972), "The Love I Lost" (1973), "Bad Luck" and "Wake Up Everybody" (both 1975).

It was reported that Pendergrass and Melvin did not continue to see eye-to-eye, and Pendergrass went off on his own in 1976. His venture as a solo act was an immediate success. Pendergrass had four platinum and two gold albums in the six years before the accident. He was in the same category of sales and popularity as Al Green and Marvin Gaye. But even Pendergrass thought some of the gimmicks used at his shows - for instance, handing out lollipops shaped like teddy bears to female fans - bordered on schmaltz: "As outgoing as I am, I'm still a country boy," he said. "It was complimentary, but it was hard to handle."

Pendergrass' later years were spent not only on music but active philanthropy on behalf of individuals with spinal chord injuries. After a bout with colon cancer, Teddy Pendergrass died on 13 January at the age of 59. He is survived by his wife, a son and two daughters.

His vital contribution to soul and in particular the unique "Sound of Philadelphia" will endure among music enthusiasts. In an interview today with the New York Times, Leon Huff said: "Teddy had that big, booming baritone voice, but he was a tender man. He was very lovable. You could hear it in his music."


Teddy Pendergrass first steps into the spotlight: "If You Don't Know Me By Now" with Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes on Soul Train in 1972.

Listen to the great Philly soul opus "The Love I Lost" by Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. TNOP still thinks it is the best vocal performance of Pendergrass' career, and a definitive example of the Gamble & Huff production sound.

Reports on the life and death of Teddy Pendergrass:
The Philadelphia Enquirer
The Washington Post (AP video) (story)
The New York Times
The Los Angeles Times
The Times of London

Art Fennell's television interview with Teddy Pendergrass from 2007.

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