Teddy Pendergrass: Life Was A Song Worth Singing

January 13, 2024
17 mins read

By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.
Monday, January 25, 2010.
Hearing the soothing voice of the late Teddy Pendergrass singing lead on the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes classic, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” conjures the aura of possibility that marked the beginning of the 1970s in Black music. The single, which went to number three on the pop charts in August of 1972 and eventually sold a million copies, was one of the first releases from the fledgling Philadelphia International Records (PIR).
The story of PIR is legendary—their groundbreaking distribution deal with Columbia Records, then under the leadership of Clive Davis, would impact the trajectory of black music for some time. The label found it’s musical direction in the triumvirate known as the Mighty Three—Thom Bell, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff—and some of Philadelphia’s most accomplished studio musicians, who themselves recorded as MFSB. By the end of the decade of the 1970s though, it would be Pendergrass who would be the face of the brand, becoming the most bankable symbol of an imagined black masculinity during the era.Born Theodore Pendergrass on March 26, 1950, the singer came of age in Philadelphia, during an era when Motown records began to dominate the pop charts and the city was increasingly becoming renowned for its vocal harmony traditions—a sound that Thom Bell would later translate into success with groups like The Delfonics and The Stylistics. Ordained as a minister at age ten, Pendergrass found his vocal inspiration via the example of Marvin Junior, the lead singer of The Dells.
As Pendergrass observes in his memoir Truly Blessed (1998), “Marvin Junior’s romantic, soulful voice was a gift from God. He could sing as smooth as honey one moment, then tear out your heart with an anguished plea.” (124) Pendergrass, in fact, got one of his first breaks as a performer, singing a rendition of The Dells’ classic “Stay in My Corner” in Atlantic City. Music historian John A. Jackson suggest that it was Pendergrass’s vocal affinity to Junior that led to Gamble and Huff’s desire to sign Harold Melvin and Blue Notes to their new label, after the duo were rebuffed in their efforts to wrest The Dells from Chess Records. Pendergrass became lead vocalist of The Blue Notes, after a short stint as their drummer that began in 1970.Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were chitlin’ circuit staples, doing cabaret tunes when they signed with PIR in 1971. To the group’s surprise Gamble and Huff packaged them with bluesy and lush ballads, the first of which “I Miss You” was released in March of 1972. Though the track made inroads on the Soul charts of the day, if was deemed “too black” for crossover radio. “Too black? What the hell did that mean?” Pendergrass recalled in his memoir, noting that artists like Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers and the Temptations (behind Norman Whitfield’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) all topped the pop charts in that era. Despite the setback, “I Miss You” with Harold Melvin’s spoken word narrative about a love lost interspersed with Pendergrass’s soulful ad-libs on the full eight-minute version of the song, was a harbinger of PIR’s signature sound.With the follow-ups “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “The Love I Lost,” the Blue Notes became one of PIR’s first major stars. “The Love I Lost” started out as a “Be For Real”-styled ballad, but was eventually recorded in an upbeat tempo that led many to claim it the first Disco recording (Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need A Change of Mind” is a better claim). From 1972-1975, The Blue Notes found success with both ballads and dance tracks, with Pendergrass providing the majority of the leads, to the extent that by 1974, the group was known as Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes featuring Theodore Pendergrass. The group, like their label brethren The O’Jay’s, benefited from Kenneth Gamble’s interest in having strong patriarchal voices parlay his lyrics of Black pride and self-determination.
Tracks like “Be For Real”—an extended musical dissertation on black social class divisions, camouflaged as an after-dinner argument between a couple—and “Wake Up Everybody” (see Alexander Weheliye’s brilliant analysis of the song’s intro in Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity) helped establish PIR as one of the artistic centers and a leading example of a developing mainstream discourse of blackness in the 1970s that was unapologetic in its nationalist sentiment and political critiques.The Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck” (1975) is perhaps most emblematic of this moment, as Gamble, via Pendergrass’s lead offers a stinging critique of the Watergate era. Logging it at six-minutes plus, it is in the song’s closing minutes where Pendergrass literally screams the lyrics “Guess what I saw? I saw the president of the United States / The man said he wasn’t gonna give it up / He did resign / But he still turned around and left all us poor folks behind / They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think that he can satisfy the human race.” As the song begins to fade, Pendergrass can be heard “The only thing that I got that I can hold on to is my God, my god, Jesus be with me and give me good luck, good luck,” tapping into the religiosity that had been largely dormant in Pendergrass’s work with The Blue Notes. One of the strongest performances by Pendergrass during his tenure with The Blue Notes, “Bad Luck” and other tracks like it unwittingly linked Pendergrass’s voice to the political aspiration espoused in Gamble’s lyrics. This connection would serve Pendergrass well, when the inevitable tensions and disputes within The Blue Notes forced him to pursue a solo career in late 1975.Teddy is ReadyNot everyone was convinced that Teddy Pendergrass was bankable as a solo artist, given the struggle that some lead singers have had when they left the comforts of a highly established group. Diana Ross was perhaps the best known Soul singer to have made such a move at the time that Pendergrass was considering his break from the Blue Notes, and up to that point Ross’s solo career had been a mixed bag. Pendergrass suggested that Kenny Gamble was particularly adamant about keeping the group together, fearing that audiences had built a bond with the group and not necessarily Pendergrass; audience often mistook Pendergrass for Melvin, since the latter was the group leader.
One person who had faith in Pendergrass was his then manager Taaz Lang, who told The Philadelphia Tribune, shortly before the release of his solo debut Teddy Pendergrass (1977), that “Teddy has the talent of Stevie wonder, and the sex appeal of a Tom Jones or Johnnie Mathis.” Even if Gamble and Huff weren’t sure how such appeal would translate to audiences, they had no doubt about who Pendergrass was as an artist. As Pendergrass recalled, “It was easy to record and believe in the songs, because they wrote them for me. It’s impossible to describe , but when I sang their songs they immediately became my songs.” (158)
Aided by Columbia/CBS Records’ “Teddy is Ready” campaign, where Pendergrass did radio station drop-ins and recorded phone messages for women fans in the various cities on his promotional tour, Teddy Pendergrass was released in the spring of 1977. The lead single “I Don’t Love You Anymore” rode the crest of the Disco wave, though Pendergrass was quick to distance himself from the trend, telling The Amsterdam News, “disco music is just a craze and I’m about longevity.” Though Gamble and Huff would continue to package Pendergrass with dance tracks like “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose,” and “Only You,” (which Eddie Murphy would later spoof in his standup routine) on later albums, he would largely establish himself on the strength of his sultry ballads. Tracks like “Somebody Told Me,” “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me,” and the brooding “And If I Had,” never helped Pendergrass garner the kind of crossover success that he experienced early on in his career with The Blue Notes, but as it turns out he didn’t need a crossover audience.In a review of a Teddy Pendergrass concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in April of 1977, New York Times critic Robert Palmer admitted the singer’s obvious appeal and talent, but cautioned, “his on-going popularity will depend on the songs, productions and packaging the people at Philadelphia International come up with.” Solely thinking about Pendergrass’s music, Palmer—as astute a critic as there was in the late 1970s—was incapable of reading what Pendergrass’s cultural appeal was. Pendergrass’s quick ascent to becoming the most recognizable male Soul singer of the 1970s, went against prevailing logics.
The Disco craze damaged the careers of many a Soul singer in the late 1970s, including established acts like Isaac Hayes and Bobby Womack, who both tried unsuccessfully to get in on the developing scene (it took years for both to recover), yet Pendergrass managed to raise the bar in this environment. Pendergrass succeeded in part because of an emerging black consumer base, that PIR itself helped to cultivate. With crossover historically deemed as the most likely route to success in the recording industry, PIR bucked the trend and tapped into the increasing buying power of a post-Civil Right era black middle class that was just beginning to flex its economic might—an audience less interested in watered-down cross-over blackness, but something more “authentic” (owing in part to the obvious anxieties produced by their new found class status).
In the late 1970s, Teddy Pendergrass was that voice of authenticity and the proof was in the sales; Pendergrass first five studio albums all went platinum or multi-platinum—the first black male artist to achieve the feat—selling primarily to black audiences and garnering little if any airplay on mainstream pop stationsPerhaps more powerfully, Pendergrass represented an idealized black masculinity in the late 1970s. Though his work with The Blue Notes had political connotations, Pendergrass’s popularity as a solo artist lie in his performance of a masculinity that was virile and potent and tailor-made for a cultural discourse that had moved beyond the struggles for Civil Rights and fixated on establishing acceptable images of black masculinity within an integrated society. Though such images existed via the form of mythical cinematic figures like Superfly (Ron O’Neal) and Shaft (Richard Roundtree), Pendergrass made such performances real and accessible, in an era partially defined by cartoonish performances of black masculinity in popular culture, like Antonio Fargas’s “Huggy Bear” and Jimmie Walker’s “J.J. Evans.”
What made Pendergrass’s performance of black masculinity palpable was, in part, the physical limits of his vocal instrument. Never technically strong as a singer—he never possessed the vocal dexterity of his peers Marvin Gaye or Al Green—there was an earnestness in Pendergrass’s baritone that helped soften a hypermasculinity that was off the charts. Still in his late twenties when he became an icon, Pendergrass’s full beard and sonorous voice evoked a man twice his age.Pendergrass was also of a generation of black male performers, who were the first, who could publically express a distinct sexual identity, with examples ranging from the aforementioned Richard Roundtree, to Marvin Gaye and even Sylvester. With the sexual revolution in full swing, sex became one of Pendergrass’s calling cards. As such Pendergrass’s rise coincides with communal anxieties produced in response to Al Green’s rejection of the very secular sexuality that helped establish the popularity of the male soul singer, dating back to Sam Cooke’s emergence in the 1950s.
If Al Green was no longer invested in the hyper-sexualized black masculinity that he and an aging Marvin Gaye (who later saw Pendergrass as a rival) helped cultivate in the 1970s, Pendergrass was a suitable and unequivocally masculine (by the standards of the era) replacement. Indeed Pendergrass was clearly cognizant of the stakes, rebuffing Amsterdam News reporter Marie Moore in a 1977 interview when she insinuated that Pendergrass had “something against women” in response to his suggestion that he didn’t want women to “get next to him.” (“Now you are implying I’m a faggot because I said that. I said that because I’m selective.”).Though Pendergrass was often ambivalent about his sex-symbol status, telling Moore in a 1978 interview that “it’s something that sort of happened. I don’t deal with that crazy shit, I’m not like that…I guess it was women themselves that invented that image of me,” his record company understood this dynamic as they went forward with Pendergrass’s career, beginning with “Close the Door,” the lead single from Pendergrass’s second release Life is a Song Worth Singing (1978). When asked by The Amsterdam News to describe “Close the Door,” Pendergrass simply replied “panty wetter,” an apt description for many of the ballads on Life is a Song Worth Singing (the title track, a remake of Thom Bell produced Johnny Mathis recording from 1973) and his follow-up Teddy (1979) including “It Don’t Hurt Now,” “Come On And Go With Me,” and “Turn Out the Lights.”With the release of the multiplatinum Teddy (1979) and Live Coast to Coast (1979) and Pendergrass’ well publicized “women only” concerts, where attendees were given chocolate teddy-bear shaped lollipops (“so that she’ll have something to lick” as quoted in The Amsterdam News), Pendergrass’s musical image was quickly degenerating into the type caricature befitting the 1970s—the type of caricature of black male singers that befell figures like Barry White and Isaac Hayes (creating the context, for example, for South Park’s “Chef” or White’s appearances on Ally McBeal). Pendergrass seized upon the opportunity presented by the deterioration of Gamble and Huff’s working relationship to work with new producers (Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs) and writers, and to begin writing some of his own songs. As John A. Jackson writes in A House On Fire: the Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul (2004), “The production assignments for the album called TP hinted at significant internal problems at Philadelphia International.”(233) To his credit Pendergrass’s albums, TP (1980) and It’s Time for Love (1981) find the singer at the peak of his artistic powers.“Can’t We Try,” the lead single from TP was penned by former Motown staffer Ron Miller (see Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning”) and Pendergrass handled the production himself. One of the singer’s most exquisite performances, the song’s popularity was boosted by its inclusion on the soundtrack for the film Roadie (1980), which starred Meatloaf. TP also featured Pendergrass’s first collaborations with the songwriting and production team of Womack and Womack (Curtis and Linda Womack) on the track “Love T.K.O.” and Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson (“Is It Still Good To You”).
Additionally, TP features Pendergrass’s pairing with touring partner Stephanie Mills on a cover of Peobo Bryson’s “Feel the Fire.” Mills recorded the track on her breakthrough album Whatcha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ (1979) and according to Pendergrass, “Stephanie and I were rehearsing for a show when I heard her sing ‘Feel the Fire’…Singing the song to myself as I listened to her belt it out during her soundcheck, I couldn’t help wondering how we would sound performing it as a duet.” (198) The song resonated with audiences—“our duets were so hot that, as with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, folks who didn’t know us assumed our passion was more than an act,” Pendergrass confided—and the duo recorded “Two Hearts” year later.If TP gave indication of Pendergrass pursuing nuance in his recordings, It’s Time for Love (1981) was confirmation of that fact. The introspective lead single, “I Can’t Live Without Your Love” and follow-up “You’re My Latest, Greatest Inspiration” (with Womack and Womack on board) gives the strongest indication of the direction that Pendergrass wanted to pursue going forward. Pendergrass admits in his memoir that “with my fifth studio album…the Teddy Bear was doing more purrin’ than roarin’.” (211) Critics also noted the shift, as Stephen Holden observed in The New York Times: ““It was an open question as to whether Mr. Pendergrass could smooth out the roughest edges and develop a ballad style that was anywhere as potent as his ferocious shouting style….the strongest cuts on last year’s TP were all ballads that showed Mr. Pendergrass developing long narrative laments with unprecedented subtlety and emotional conviction.”Pendergrass supported It’s Time for Love with a tour of England, with Mills, and was primed for the kind of crossover success that had eluded him during his solo career, when a winding road outside of Philadelphia placed his life, his career and his embodiment of an imagined black masculinity in jeopardy.This Gift of LifeAccording to Teddy Pendergrass, it was on his birthday, March 26th 1982, that he first began to grasp the gravity of what had happened, more than a week earlier: “the eight days between the accident and my birthday passed a dark, painful blur…I had no idea where I was, who was in the room with me, what time of day it was, or sometimes even who I was.” (215). Officially, Pendergrass was driving his 1981 Rolls Royce, late in the evening of March 18, 1982 with a companion Tenika Watson, when he lost control of his car.
Pendergrass and Watson were trapped in the car for more than forty-five minutes, with Pendergrass sustaining spinal chord injuries that would leave him paralyzed from below the waist and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. As Pendergrass reflects in Truly Blessed, “In one single stroke, my body had been changed forever in ways that I could not even imagine, much less bear to think about. In my mind, though, I was still the same man I was when I started the drive back to Philadelphia that spring night.” (218)If Pendergrass could assert that he had faith that he was the same man, as he looked beyond his accident, the same could not necessarily be said about communal faith in the meanings behind that body. If Pendergrass’s hyper-masculine and sexually potent body previously served as a salve for the anxieties produced in the midst of Disco’s decidedly queering of popular music, Pendergrass’s broken body became the site for a new set of anxieties about black masculinity.
The source of that angst was the revelation that Pendergrass’s companion that night, Tenika Watson, was transsexual. Well before there was remotely a politically-correct way to address transsexual and transgendered people in the public realm (as if that’s the case even now), Watson was immediately positioned as some sort of freak. As Watson told The Philadelphia Tribune two months after the accident—which she escaped with minor injuries—“I can’t get over how people treat you, how they turn everything around…what really made me upset was the fact that the papers made me seem as though I was some kind of animal or demon and that I was not a God fearing person.”Tellingly, Pendergrass’s accident marks a shift in black masculine performances within R&B, best exemplified in the increasing popularity of Luther Vandross (who would later produce “You’re My Choice Tonight (Choose Me)” for Pendergrass’s first post-accident recording session), Prince, Rick James, El DeBarge and Michael Jackson who all trafficked in androgynous and asexual performances of masculinity that were the antithesis of Pendergrass’s version of the Black Macho. Additionally, the period saw the emergence of a generation of rank-and-file falsetto R&B acts like Lillo Thomas, Richard “Dimples” Field, O’Bryan, a young Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Paul Lawrence and Ready For the World.
These shifts were in motion before Pendergrass’s accident, but his accident put a fine point on the matter. In the two-plus decades since Pendergrass’s accident, R&B has featured few singers who have been successful singing in Pendergrass’s lower register, save the late Gerald Levert, who sang in a register higher than Pendergrass.With Pendergrass in need of money for mounting medical expenses and PIR struggling in the aftermath of a recession and facing the prospect that their most important asset was literally shelved, Pendergrass’s manager Shep Gordon, located tapes of unreleased recordings that formed the basis for This One’s For You (1982) and Heaven Only Knows (1983). Though John A. Jackson suggest in A House on Fire, that the two albums contained “material originally deemed too inferior to release,” some tracks give a clear indication of how Pendergrass was imagining the trajectory of his career. The eerily titled “This Gift of Life,” the lead single from This One’s For You, had been previously released as the B-side to “Can’t We Try.”
The title track to the album was a cover of the Barry Manilow hit, highlighting Pendergrass’s desire to interpret some of the pop standards of the time—a desire first articulated with his cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” during his 1979 concert tour. Pendergrass’s a capella performance at the end of “This One’s for You” gives the song a depth that Manilow could have never imagined. Heaven Only Knows even includes Pendergrass venturing into Country music, with the track “Crazy About Your Love.”
The song seems an odd choice for Pendergrass, but it was likely recorded with Pendergrass keeping an eye on the fortunes of country music star Kenny Rogers (another noted baritone from the era), who was crossing over to the mainstream and Black audiences with Lionel Ritchie penned and produced tracks like “Lady” and “Through the Years”—tracks the helped Ritchie establish a mainstream presence when he went solo in 1982.After a period of rehabilitation, Pendergrass was ready to return to the studio in 1984. With PIR no longer viable, Pendergrass signed with Elektra and released Love Language. Pendergrass’s voice was noticeably “lighter” and much of the production lacked the layers of lushness that was PIR’s signature, even in the years after the departure of its core musicians. The notable exception was Vandross’s production on “You’re My Choice Tonight (Choose Me),” a song that was later featured in the film Choose Me (1985). Love Language was also notable for the pairing of Pendergrass with a twenty-year old unknown named Whitney Houston. Pendergrass even managed to make a music video for the lead single “In My Time.”
Pendergrass returned a year later with Workin’ It Back, which featured Womack and Womack’s “Lonely Color Blue.” It was during the summer of 1985 that Pendergrass made his symbolic return to the public, performing live for the first time as part of the Live Aid Concerts. The concerts were the product of Rock artist Bob Geldof’s effort to raise money for famine relief, with performances broadcast from London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia JFK Stadium. Pendergrass appeared alongside his long-time friends Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, performing a rendition of their classic song “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hands).” As Pendergrass recalls, “with Nick and Val on either side of me, I began to weep.”
Pendergrass never looked back. The strength of his voice had largely returned when Joy was released in 1988. Pendergrass eventually earned his first Grammy Award, after three previous nominations, for his 1992 cover of the early Bee Gees classic “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart,” which was also covered in the early 1970s by Al Green (arguably, the definitive version). Pendergrass’s last recording was the live From Teddy with Love (2002). In the aftermath of his accident Pendergrass became an advocate for people with spinal cord injuries, citing the inspiration that Johnny Wilder, Jr. the late lead singer of Heatwave, provided after Wilder became a quadriplegic in the aftermath of an auto accident in 1979.
It was under the auspicious of Pendergrass’s non-profit organization The Teddy Pendergrass Alliance that many gathered in Philadelphia in 2007 to fete him and his 25 years of living since the accident. In an interview with The Philadelphia Tribune Pendergrass admitted “This is not a cartoon. This is not a movie. This is real life. I want to know, after something happens like this, how do you have a productive life in the meantime? That’s what this is about. I’m asking people to help me help others like me.”
Teddy Pendergrass may have once sang “Life Is a Song Worth Singing,” but in the last 28 years of his life, he proved that his was a life worth living.***Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books on music and popular culture, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy, which will be published in 2011 by New York University Press, and The TNI-Mixtape which will be available on-line for free download later this year. Neal is a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

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