Music is as much a part of black history as any part of our history. Therefore, today I want to salute Black History Month by paying homage to the ghost of the greats who made a huge impact on the world and the lives of us who lived it. Today, artists have one or two hits and they are called legends. I find this laughable because, frankly, there is no body of work, in most cases, to support the label or prove worthy of attention. Black artists and icons have mastered their craft and created genres that will last forever.
NO ONE did it better than the man we affectionately call “Teddy” – Theodore Pendergrass – one of the greatest R&B singer and songwriter of our time. Teddy rose to fame as lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in the early 1970s prior to his hugely successful solo career at the end of the decade. In a horrible twist of fate, in 1982, Teddy was severely injured in an auto accident resulting in his being paralyzed from the chest down. After his injury, he founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a foundation that helps those with spinal cord injuries.
Teddy was not unlike most R&B singers he sang often at church and dreamed of being a pastor being ordained as a minster at the age of 10. In his early career, he sang with the Edison Mastersingers and dropped out of school in the eleventh grade to pursue the music business, recording his first song “Angel With Muddy Feet.” The recording, however, was not a commercial success.
It was the result of a chance encounter with the Blue Notes’ founder, Harold Melvin, who convinced Pendergrass to play drums in the group. Then fate stepped in and during a performance Teddy began singing along, and Melvin, impressed by his vocals, made him the lead singer. Before Pendergrass joined the group, the Blue Notes had struggled to find success. That all changed when they landed a recording deal with Philadelphia International Records in 1971, thus beginning Teddy’s successful collaboration with label founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. From this point there was no turning back.
I will briefly list a few of Teddy’s most memorable hits that took him high in the stratosphere starting with his self-titled album, which went platinum on the strength of the disco hit, “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” Its follow-up single, “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me,” became a top 20 R&B hit. It was quickly followed by Life Is a Song Worth Singing. That album was even more successful with its singles including “Only You” and “Close the Door.”
The disco single, “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose” was popular in dance clubs and after that came two more successes, Teddy and the live release, Live Coast to Coast. Hits off Teddy included “Come and Go With Me” and “Turn Off The Lights.” This was followed by the album, “TP” that included his signature song, “Love TKO” and “Is It Still Good to You.” Between 1977 and 19981, Teddy landed five consecutive platinum albums, which was a then-record setting number for a rhythm and blues artist.
Teddy’s popularity became so massive at the end of 1977 with sold-out audiences packing his shows; his manager soon noticed that a huge number of his audience consisted of women of all races. They devised a plan for his next tour to play to just female audiences, starting a trend that continues today called “women’s only concerts.”
With five platinum albums and two gold albums, Teddy was on his way to be what the media was calling him, “the black Elvis” not only in terms of his crossover popularity but also due to him buying a mansion akin to Elvis’ Graceland, located just outside of his hometown of Philadelphia. By early 1982, Pendergrass was the leading R&B male artist of his day usurping competition including closest rivals Marvin Gaye and Barry White.
Then tragedy struck on the night of March 18, 1982, in the East Falls section of Philadelphia on Lincoln Drive near Rittenhouse Street, Teddy was involved in an automobile accident. He lost control of his Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit – the car hit a guard rail, crossed into the opposite traffic lane, and hit two trees and was trapped in the wreckage for 45 minutes; leaving him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down.
He kept recording through the 1990s in spite of being wheelchair bond and give the world his final hit in 1994, which was a hip-hop leaning “Believe in Love”. His most lasting memory for the world was “Wake Up Everybody” a tune that has been covered by a diverse range of acts from Simply Red, Patti LaBelle, Babyface, Little Brother, Kanye West, Cam’ron, Twista, Tyrese Gibson, DMX, 9th Wonder, and DJ Green Lantern.
Sadly, on January 13, 2010, the man we knew as “Teddy” left us to sing with the angels. I’ll tell you, and if you knew Teddy, the world will never be the same without his uniquely profound soulful voice. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…