In 1973, the year I turned 10, “The Love I Lost” came on the radio one morning and the hurricane-powered swoon of Teddy Pendergrass first shook-up my world. “His voice just roared over you,” former Philadelphia International Records co-owner/co-producer Leon Huff, (who co-owned the label with partner Kenny Gamble) said about the gifted performer, whose rich baritone was simultaneously smooth and raw. Working with a stellar roster that included the O’Jays, the Three Degrees and Billy Paul, the majestic singing of Teddy Pendergrass was the brightest jewel in the Philly Soul crown. “Even early on, he had one of the strongest voices I’d ever heard.”
A former drummer, Teddy started making a little noise the year before when “I Miss You” and “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” (from the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes self-titled debut disc). But it was the pulsing heartbreak of “The Love I Lost,” with its “bittersweet, downward-bending melody over an exhilarating, string-laden romp” that became my official heartbreak anthem.
Although I’d never been in love, I felt his pain. The song became known as one of the first American disco records, a track that was perfect for “hustling” to. But it also was a purveyor of the simultaneously raw and sophisticated soul Philly International sound that would take over 1970s radio. Before it was all over, Teddy Pendergrass would also become one of the biggest stars of the decade.
“Teddy’s voice went from the pulpit to the bedroom,” says his friend Dyana Williams. A renowned radio personality on WRNB in Philadelphia, she was married to songwriter/producer Kenny Gamble when she met Pendergrass in 1977. “On a song like ‘Come on Over,’ he sang seductively, while on ‘Wake Up Everybody,’ he sounded like a preacher addressing the congregation. Women loved hearing him sing.”
Born in Philadelphia on March 26, 1950 at Thomas Jefferson Hospital, Theodore Pendergrass was a native son who loved the brotherly city. A lifelong resident, it was there where he played in the streets, preached in church, developed his artistic craft and made his fortune. With a name that means “a gift from God,” the celebrated soul man started singing at the age of 2 when his mother Ida helped him stand on a chair inside their local storefront church.
Becoming a minister at the age of 10, young Theodore became well aware of the power of God as well as the power of love. While attending public school, he sang in the citywide McIntyre Elementary School Choir and in the All-City Stetson Junior High School Choir. From his humble beginnings, the man that millions know today simply as Teddy rose from poverty to prominence and never looked back. A student at Thomas Edison High School, Pendergrass began his show-biz career at the age of 15, when the self-taught drummer began playing with a group called the Cadillacs.
In the late 1960s, when the group merged with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy was recruited as their drummer. After displaying his vocal prowess during rehearsals, it was only a matter of time before group leader Melvin slipped a microphone in his hand and Pendergrass soon became the premier voice of the newly launched Philadelphia International Records.
Having studied the moves of Jackie Wilson and other performers at the Uptown Theater when he was just a boy, Teddy knew that one had to be an excellent showman, and he never failed when it was time to take it to the stage. “He was so powerful on stage,” Williams, who attended one of his “Women Only” concerts, recalls. “The crowd was so sexually charged that each cheer was like a collective orgasm.”
With the release of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ self-titled debut in ’72, the bearded balladeer soon became the king of urban radio when the group’s dynamic second single, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” became a number-one hit across the country.
“Teddy was an incredible six-foot-three man with the voice of an angel,” says his widow, Joan Pendergrass. “His songs taught many young men how to treat a woman right, with love.” From 1972 to 1975, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes became one of the most popular R&B groups in the world, releasing hit albums and singles that were always sung with soul, drama and sophistication by Pendergrass.
Decades after their initial release, tracks like “The Love I Lost,” “Satisfaction Guaranteed (or Take Your Love Back),” “Bad Luck,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Wake Up Everybody” are classics that resonates joy, pain and liberation to old fans and new listeners. But at the time, neither Teddy nor Harold Melvin was happy with their situations.
“There was a lot of mistrust and negative energy between the two,” says Dyana Williams, who in 2012 produced an Unsung episode on Pendergrass. “A lot of people thought Teddy was Harold.” Meanwhile, Pendergrass was still getting sideman money, which made his decision to jump ship that much easier. Stepping into the solo spotlight in 1977 with his self-titled debut, Teddy Pendergrass put to rest any doubts that he could survive beyond the confines of the group.
Selling more than a million copies, the album featured the smash singles “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” “You Can’t Hide From Yourself,” and “The More I Get the More I Want.” It was also during this period when Teddy Pendergrass started performing his world-famous “Ladies Only” tours that elevated his stature as one of the greatest R&B artists in history. With a gleaming smile and steam rising from his body, Teddy was a rhythmic sensation as thousands of fans showered him with gifts. From teddy bears (which many had nicknamed him) to other unmentionables, by the end of the night the stage was crowded with presents.
Along with his collaborators Gamble and Huff, McFadden and Whitehead and countless others, Pendergrass kept recording top-notch material. In 2008, Teddy told the Chicago Free Press, “There was the Motown family, and next there was Philadelphia International Records, the Gamble and Huff era. They took music into a whole other realm. They opened it up, broadened it. In the Motown era of the ’60s, those artists opened up the airwaves so that Black music was played on the white airwaves and gold records were plentiful. Gamble and Huff broadened that even more and artists began to receive platinum records, which I did.
“I was the first Black artist to receive five consecutive platinum records. We opened it up even more, so the ’70s was a place where Black music went over the top and those guys are responsible for that.” In 1978, Pendergrass won a Grammy for Favorite Male Artist -Soul/Rhythm & Blues. His next three albums Life Is Song Worth Singing (1978), Teddy (1978) and Teddy Live (1979) went gold or platinum. As he was quick to tell EBONY, “There’s more to me than my chest and my crotch.”
With Teddy, in both his public and private live, there was a tenderness and strength in him that translated as a father, a husband, grandfather and businessperson. As the 1970s ended, Pendergrass kept generating hits. TP, his fifth solo album, went platinum in the summer of 1980 off the singles “Turn Off the Lights,” “Come Go With Me,” “Shout and Scream,” “It’s You I Love,” and “Can’t We Try.” It’s Time for Love gave Pendergrass another gold album in summer 1981, which included the hit singles “Love TKO” and “I Can’t Live Without Your Love.”
Singer Will Downing, who recently covered “Turn Off the Lights” on the recently released Euphoria album, remembers his sisters going crazy over Teddy. “They played the songs over and over, stared at the album covers and were just fanatics,” he laughs. As Downing got older, he realized that Pendergrass was more than a sex symbol who drove his sisters nuts. “Teddy was a master of emotion. On ‘Turn Off the Lights,’ he starts off with a whisper and his voice slowly builds to the climax. Not many singers can do that. Some might try to copy him, but not many can do what he did.”
When Teddy experienced the terrible car accident on March 18, 1982 (eight days before his 32nd birthday) that paralyzed him for the rest of his life, doubters tried to write him off. Known for his confidence and cockiness, briefly he too thought it was over.
“After the accident, there were times when he felt suicidal,” Dyana Williams says, “but he worked to regain his strength and singing ability.” Defying expectations after a year of physical therapy, Teddy returned to the studio in 1984 and recorded his Elektra/Asylum debut Love Language, which went gold. The album’s first stunning single “You’re My Choice Tonight (Choose Me)” (produced by Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller) was used for the soundtrack of the Alan Rudolph’s 1984 film Choose Me.
“My rehabilitation was totally due to the fact that I could still focus on continuing to make music,” Pendergrass told Wax Poetics in 2008. Subsequent albums included Workin It Back (1985), Joy (1988, whose title track went to number one R&B for two weeks), Truly Blessed (1991) and Little More Magic (1993). “I got signs from God that he was going to let me continue.”
In 1987, he married dancer Karen Sills; they divorced in 2003. Three years later, Teddy wed New Balance athletic shoes exec Joan Williams in Massachusetts after a two-year courtship. The two remained together until his final day. The latter half of ’90s found Pendergrass recording for the Surefire/Wind Up label. With writer Patricia Romanowski, he co-authored with his autobiography Truly Blessed in 1998.
For the better part of the 2000s, Teddy was heavily involved in the maintaining his family and working with his charity, The Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1998 to aid people with spinal-cord injuries. “Teddy once told me that he loved the spotlight, but nothing gave him more joy than giving opportunities to people with spinal cord injuries,” Joan Pendergrass says. “He wanted that to also be part of his legacy.”
In 2008, Teddy was also nurturing new endeavors, including a musical documenting his life called I Am Who I Am. Written by Jackie Taylor, it premiered at Chicago’s famed Black Ensemble Theater. Two years later, shortly after a battle with colon cancer, Teddy Pendergrass died on January 13, 2010. He was 59.
“Teddy’s music is timeless,” Joan says. “It is romantic, it is inspirational, and, though he is gone, his songs will live on forever.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.