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Teddy Pendergrass

Teddy Pendergrass

Teddy Pendergrass was among the premier singers of his time, a Philly soul great whose gruff baritone voice was suited equally for vigorous grooves and (sometimes literally) commanding ballads. Installed as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' drummer in 1970, Pendergrass soon entered the spotlight with the group, and fronted it through nine Top Ten R&B hits that included "I Miss You" and the chart-topping trio of "If You Don't Know Me by Now," "The Love I Lost," and "Wake Up Everybody." Pendergrass outgrew the Blue Notes but remained with Philadelphia International Records, whose founders Gamble & Huff, and extended family of producers, songwriters, and musicians, supplied him with enough alternately tough and tender material to fill five straight platinum studio albums. Released from 1977 through 1981, these LPs, starting with a self-titled debut and highlighted by consecutive R&B number ones Life Is a Song Worth Singing and Teddy, repeatedly affirmed the singer's high standing. During that period, Pendergrass scored eight of his own Top Ten R&B singles, all of which were pure soul, from the storming "I Don't Love You Anymore" to the seductive "Close the Door," "Turn Off the Lights," and "Love T.K.O." Paralyzed from the waist down after a 1982 car accident, Pendergrass returned to the upper reaches of the R&B chart in 1984 with "Hold Me," a duet with pre-fame Whitney Houston, and went on to top the R&B chart again with "Joy" and "It Should've Been You" before releasing his final albums roughly a decade before his death in 2010.

Thedore DeReese Pendergrass was born in Kingstree, South Carolina, and raised in North Philadelphia. He started singing in church, and became an ordained minister at the age of ten. While attending public school, he sang in the citywide McIntyre Elementary School Choir and in the All-City Stetson Junior High School Choir. He was in a teen pop vocal group when he was 15, and by his late teens was the drummer for the Cadillacs, another local vocal group. In 1970, he joined Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes as the group's drummer, and became lead singer later that year after the departure of John Atkins. Subsequently signed to Gamble & Huff's Philadelphia International Records, the Blue Notes, powered by the voice of their new addition, went on a tear. "I Miss You" started it by reaching number seven on Billboard's R&B chart, and it continued with the number one R&B (and Top Ten pop) hits "If You Don't Know Me by Now" and "The Love I Lost," and additional Philly soul classics such as "Bad Luck" (number four R&B, number 15 pop) and "Wake Up Everybody" (number one R&B, number 12 pop). Also major album artists during this fertile 1972-1976 period, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes hit the R&B albums Top Ten with I Miss You and Black & Blue, and topped the chart with the respective gold and platinum sellers To Be True and Wake Up Everybody.

The more success the group had, the more friction that developed between Pendergrass and Harold Melvin. Despite the revised billing of the group, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes featuring Theodore Pendergrass, Pendergrass felt he wasn't getting enough recognition, and furthermore had a financial grievance with the leader. He left the Blue Notes in 1976, and though they remained hot into the next year with the late success of the Wake Up Everybody cut "Don't Leave Me This Way" (the original version was issued as a single in response to the emergence of Gloria Gaynor's take), Pendergrass was unconcerned about striking while the iron was hot, and took his time in plotting his solo career. He secured a solo deal with Philadelphia International, and in 1977 issued Teddy Pendergrass, on which he teamed with Gamble & Huff and another PIR duo, McFadden & Whitehead. A platinum solo debut, Teddy Pendergrass, included the number five R&B single "I Don't Love You Anymore" and additional disco favorites "You Can't Hide from Yourself" and "The More I Get, The More I Want."

Life Is a Song Worth Singing, Teddy, TP, and It's Time for Love, issued on an annual basis from 1978 through 1981, likewise went Top 20 pop and earned platinum certifications for Pendergrass. A major live draw with a reputation solidified by a "Ladies Only" tour, Pendergrass stocked these albums with ballads such as the Grammy-nominated "Close the Door" and "Turn Off the Lights," respective number one and number two R&B hits, and more hot-blooded dancefloor fillers like "Only You." The double album Live! Coast to Coast was released during this all-platinum streak of studio LPs and went gold itself. "Two Hearts," a duet with Stephanie Mills, went Top 40 pop just ahead of "I Can't Live Without Your Love," his seventh solo Top Ten R&B hit, which earned him his second Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.

A 1982 car accident left Pendergrass paralyzed from the waist down. Within a few months, Philadelphia International put together This One's for You, and the next year released a second collection of previously unreleased Pendergrass music, Heaven Only Knows. After almost a year of physical therapy and counseling, Pendergrass returned to the scene with new support from Asylum Records. Thanks to "Hold Me," a Top Ten R&B duet with the emergent Whitney Houston, Love Language -- produced by Michael Masser and Luther Vandross -- went gold within five months of release in 1984. ("Hold Me" would later reappear as the finale of Houston's blockbuster debut album.) Workin' It Back followed in 1985 and featured another Top Ten single with "Love 4/2," co-written by Pendergrass. He had more success after he moved to Elektra, releasing the albums Joy, Truly Blessed, and A Little More Magic from 1988 through 1993. The first of the three went gold with help from the number one R&B title track (written and produced by ex-Midnight Star members Reggie and Vincent Calloway, aka Calloway), and became Pendergrass' third Grammy-nominated recording. The second one featured Pendergrass' final number one R&B hit, the Terry Price collaboration "It Should've Been You," as well as a Grammy-nominated cover of Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" Truly Blessed contained the Gerald Levert and Edwin Nicholas collaboration "Voodoo," Pendergrass' last recording to be nominated for a Grammy. With rare exception, the three Elektra albums avoided the dominant new jack swing sound of the era.

The latter half of the '90s found Pendergrass recording for the independent Surefire label. He released A Little More Magic in 1997, and in 1998 -- the year he published Truly Blessed, his autobiography -- delivered This Christmas (I'd Rather Have Love). Apart from an appearance at a 2007 ceremony held in his honor, Pendergrass spent his later years away from the spotlight. He had difficulty recovering from colon cancer surgery and died of respiratory failure on January 13, 2010. A documentary on his life, If You Don't Know Me by Now, was produced by BBC Film in 2018. ~ Andy Kellman & Ed Hogan

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