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The Music Diaries | Teddy Pendergrass: The provocative balladeer

Published:Friday | January 11, 2019 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Singer Teddy Pendergrass.
Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes.

Today marks the ninth anniversary of the passing of Teddy Pendergrass, one of the most popular exponents of the Soul and R&B music genres. He rose to prominence as the lead vocalist of the group Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, before forging a successful solo career, beginning in the late 1970s. Depicting a style that showcased the sexier side of Soul, Pendergrass, released a barrage of hit singles that rode the higher echelon of record charts in various countries during the late 1970s and 1980s.

Born March 26, 1950 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pendergrass was immersed in gospel music in churches as a child. He taught himself the drums, which was put to good use when he joined a local band - The Cadillacs - in his late teens. By then, he had dropped out of school and had gone fully into secular music.

When the Cadillacs was invited to become the backup group for the more established Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes in 1969, the move opened the door for Pendergrass to become the drummer/vocalist with the group. His rich, warm baritone soon became noticeable, and frontman Melvin duly promoted him to be the lead vocalist.

With Pendergrass on lead vocals, the group enjoyed a dazzling run of hit singles between 1972 and 1975 that included I Miss You, The Love I Lost, Bad Luck, Wake Up Everybody, and the quintessential million-selling ballad If You Don't Know Me By Now.


Solo Career


With all the success that the group was enjoying, Pendergrass felt he was not given the recognition he deserved. Some, however, felt that he had gone overboard by requesting the group to be renamed Teddy Pendergrass and The Blue Notes. Monetary and personality conflicts compounded the issue, and Pendergrass left the group in 1976.

He was confident that he had the voice, the charisma and the sex-symbol image to forge a powerful solo career as he maintained links with Philadelphia International Records. His career achieved five consecutive multi-platinum albums, making him the first black male vocalist to have done so. His debut album, Teddy Pendergrass, in 1977, spawned the megahits Somebody Told Me and The Whole Town's Laughing At Me, while his follow-up album in 1978, Life Is A Song Worth Singing, contained the hit Close The Door. The single demonstrates Pendergrass' sensuous sex-symbol image, as he invited his partner to:

"Close the door.

Let me give you what you've been looking for.

Baby, I've got so much love to give.

And I wanna give it all to you."

By then, his popularity had soared to unprecedented heights. The crowds that followed his shows were no different. He attracted the largest following among women. Caught up in the heights of hysteria, screaming ecstatic women would sometimes throw lingerie and stuffed teddy bears on stage. Their actions prompt Prendergast to launch his 'women's only concerts' in the late '70s.

In 1979, he demonstrated perhaps the highest degree of sexual seduction in song, as he sings the cut - Turn Off The Lights from the album Teddy. The risque lyrics ran in part:

"Turn off the lights, light a candle.

Tonight I'm in a romantic mood.

Let's take a shower, shower together.

I'll wash your body, you'll wash mine.

Rub me down with some hot oil, baby, and I'll do the same thing to you."

And so, with all of this sexual euphoria about women that he sung about, it was somewhat mind-boggling when rumours started circulating that he was gay.




A serious motor vehicle accident on March 18, 1982 threatened to end his career and life. It was reported that his Rolls-Royce skidded off a Pennsylvania highway in the midst of a tryst with a transgender woman. The woman later appeared on one of Winfrey Oprah's show and rubbished the report.

He suffered a severe spiral cord injury that left him paralysed from the neck down. Pendergrass, however, exercised extreme resilience - after a year of physical therapy, he miraculously returned to the recording studio in a wheelchair to record one of his most successful albums - Love Language. The track, Hold Me, a duet with Whitney Houston, brought the singing diva to prominence, and literally launched her career.

Pendergrass' follow-up albums - Working It Back and Joy in 1985 and 1988, respectively - were also successful. A starring role with Stephanie Mills in the gospel musical - Your Arm's Too Short To Box With God confirmed his ability to withstand adversity.

In later years, Pendergrass became an advocate for people with spinal cord injuries forming The Teddy P Alliance. He underwent colon cancer surgery in 2009 and died on January 13, 2010.