Soul Retrospective: Teddy Pendergrass

Teddy PendergrassTeddy Pendergrass was one of music’s most charismatic and potent singers. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pendergrass was equally at home with ballads and dance tracks. However, in 1982, the trajectory of his career drastically changed. The totality of his heady beginnings, his constant success, and his later challenges makes for a truly unique and sometimes bittersweet career.

Teddy Pendergrass’s path to success was relatively smooth. As a teenager, Pendergrass sang in the church and later played drums. In his early 20s, Pendergrass became the drummer for the R&B group Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

In 1972, the much-traveled group signed to Philadelphia International. Pendergrass and the Blue Notes were fortuitous enough to catch the Philly sound at the time when it was becoming more lush, confident and defined. Pendergrass’s youth and uncommon maturity powered the group’s run of classic songs like, “I Miss You,” “The Love I Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” and “Wake Up Everybody.” In 1975, the group changed its name to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Theodore Pendergrass. In 1976, Pendergrass left the group due to monetary and personal issues with the boss, Harold Melvin.

Pendergrass’s transition to a solo career was remarkably easy (he was the only voice on the 1976 hit, “Wake Up Everybody.”) Shortly before his solo debut, Pendergrass recorded “Now Is The Time” for the Philadelphia International’s compilation Lets Clean Up the Ghetto.

His debut solo album, Teddy Pendergrass, was released in 1977. The album’s initial single was the tough and Latinized “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” Teddy Pendergrass was a well-thought out product and featured much loved tracks like “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me,” “You Can’t Hide From Yourself,” and “If I Had.”

The late ’70s found Pendergrass extremely busy, in demand and becoming one of R&B and pop’s most successful singers. Life is a Song Worth Singing was released in mid- 1978 and featured the classics “It Don’t Hurt Now,” “When Somebody Loves You Back,” and of course, “Close The Door.”

R&B success wasn’t the only option for Pendergrass, and his label, CBS, wanted a success that was across the board. To that end, Pendergrass signed with the eccentric and powerful Shep Gordon and his career took on a more diversified direction. Pendergrass’ looks and voice gave him a devoted female following, and soon “Ladies Only” concerts were created as he was presented as a sex symbol.

Teddy was released in 1979 and, although it wasn’t as sharp as his predecessors, the album undoubtedly had two of his best songs—the gentle and breezy “Come Go With Me,” and the potent and fun “Turn Off the Lights.” Teddy Pendergrass’ Live! Coast to Coast was released later in the same year and captured the intensity of his live concerts.

In 1980, Pendergrass released TP, an album that was arguably his best effort and which seemed to definitively capture Pendergrass’ range and styles. The album featured classics such as “Feel the Fire (with Stephanie Mills),” “Love TKO,” and “Can’t We Try.”

Pendergrass released Its Time For Love in 1981. The album wasn’t as strong as previous releases despite songs like “You’re My Latest and Greatest Inspiration” and “I Can’t Live Without Your Love.” It‘s Time For Love went gold, whereas all of his previous solo  albums all went platinum.

Despite that slight setback, Pendergrass’ career was still in great shape during this time, but that would soon change. In March 1982, a car crash left Pendergrass a quadriplegic.

Due to the severity of his injuries, Pendergrass lost some of the power and strength of his singing voice. Throughout the early ‘80s, Pendergrass underwent a grueling rehabilitation and didn’t record for three years. In the meantime, Philadelphia International released two albums of unreleased material, Heaven Knows and This One‘s For You.

In 1984, Pendergrass signed to Asylum Records and began recording his new album. Love Language was a departure due to Pendergrass’ voice, as well as the adult contemporary/R&B production. The first single, “Hold Me,” was a glossy duet with Whitney Houston. Michael Masser produced the album except for “You’re My Choice Tonight,” which was produced by Luther Vandross. Love Language went gold. In

1985, Pendergrass appeared at Live Aid (with Ashford and Simpson) and delivered an emotional performance of “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.”

Later that year, Pendergrass released WorkinIt Back, which featured thoughtful ballads like “Love 4/2,” “Lonely Color Blue,” and “One of Us Fell in Love.” The album was a valiant effort but was a commercial disappointment. Pendergrass’ fortunes improved for his next release. 1988’s Joy featured the electro-funky hit title track and the quiet storm favorite, “2 AM.” The album was perhaps his best crafted album for Asylum, and it was a gold seller.

Throughout the early ‘90s, Pendergrass experienced continued success with Truly Blessed with the hit single, “I’m Glad to Be Alive.” By the mid-‘90s, Pendergrass had become the gold standard for many romantic R&B singers and many tried to duplicate his style, sound and presentation, but none of them had Pendergrass’ rare vocal gift or his charisma.

Pendergrass continued to have success on the R&B chart with albums like A Little More Magic andYou and I.

In 1998, Pendergrass wrote an autobiography entitled Truly Blessed, and it was a story of rare candor detailing his upbringing, his stint with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and his feelings about his accident.

Longtime fans continued to love to see Pendergrass perform live, and he recorded a Christmas album and appeared with Stephanie Mills in a revival of the play Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. Pendergrass’ well-received 2002 performance at the Wiltern Theatre was recorded for DVD as well as CD. Pendergrass continued to do sporadic performances until he retired from the stage in 2005.

Teddy Pendergrass died of colon cancer in 2010. His powerful voice merged with emotional honesty has made him one of music’s most enduring artists.

—Jason Elias

Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and music journalist.

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