Wed | Jan 23, 2019

Teddy P's spinal injury hurts soul

Published:Sunday | January 11, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Thursday, March 18, 1982, was a sad day for soul music. The Rolls Royce driven by sensuous sex symbol singer Teddy Pendergrass skidded off a Pennsylvania highway. Pendergrass incurred spinal cord damage that left him paralysed from the neck down.

Soul and R&B music suffered critical injury, along with Pendergrass.

His only passenger miraculously escaped with minor injuries and later told her story on one of Oprah's shows.

The accident, which occurred at the height of Pendergrass' career, dealt a severe blow to his life, which began on March 25, 1950, in Philadelphia, USA. Immersed in gospel as a child, Pendergrass began singing in church at two years old and became a member of the All City Elementary School choir at six.

As a teenager, Pendergrass taught himself drums on a set his mother bought him. Pendergrass later fell in love with performing after seeing legends like Chubby Checker and Bobby Darin at a nightclub where his mother worked as a singer.

Having a father around wasn't a luxury the youngster enjoyed. He left the family home during Teddy's early childhood and was killed before Pendergrass became a teenager. Pendergrass' seemingly awkward life continued with him dropping out of school during 11th grade to enter the music business.

Joined local band

Armed with his fairly competent drumming skills, Pendergrass joined local band The Cadillacs in his late teens. When Harold Melvin invited The Cadillacs to be the back-up group/band for the veteran doo-wop singers Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, a merger was in the making. Pendergrass eventually became a Bluenotes member in 1969.

Teddy's smooth, big baritone voice was soon noticed and frontman Melvin promoted him to the lead vocalist position. It sparked an association with the popular songwriting and production team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, along with the legendary Philadelphia International record label.

Under their watch, the outfit, with Pendergrass' warm baritone voice the most prominent, enjoyed a dazzling run of hits between 1972 and 1975. They included I Miss You, Wake Up Everybody, The Love I Lost, Bad Luck, and the quintessential million-selling ballad If You Don't Know Me By Now.

By 1975, Pendergrass and Melvin had differences, mainly because of monetary matters and personality conflicts. Pendergrass felt he wasn't being paid enough or given the recognition he deserved. He was brash enough to request the group be renamed Teddy Pendergrass and the Bluenotes.

Solo career

The impasse resulted in Pendergrass leaving for a solo career in 1976. Staying with Philadelphia International Records and maintaining his singing style, Pendergrass forged an exciting and successful solo career. He had five consecutive multi-platinum albums, the first black male vocalist to do so.

His debut in 1977 was the self-titled Teddy Pendergrass, which spawned the hits I Don't Love You Anymore, Somebody Told Me, and The Whole Town's Laughing at Me. The follow-up album in 1978, named Life Is a Song Worth Singing, included the hit Close The Door. The song demonstrated Pendergrass' prowling and sensuous sex symbol character, as he coaxed his partner with the lyrics:

"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."

Pendergrass continued the trend with his third studio album and third million-seller in as many starts, the 1979 release Teddy. It contained perhaps Pendergrass' best known song, Turn Off The Lights, which seems to exhibit the highest degree of sexual vocal seduction when he sings:

"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"

His hit albums continued in 1980 with TP and, a year later, It's Time For Love.

As early as 1977, Pendergrass' popularity had reached stupendous levels and so did the crowds that followed his shows. They consisted mainly of screaming, ecstatic women, some of whom threw lingerie and stuffed teddy bears on stage when driven to hysteria. It prompted Pendergrass to institute women-only concerts, which became a regular feature of his itinerary around the end of the 1970s.

Then came the crash and most things were never the same again. After almost a year of physical and emotional therapy, Pendergrass miraculously returned to the recording studios (for Elektra/ Asylum) in a somewhat subdued and languid style. He copped gold status in the spring of 1984 for the album Love Language. The tracks In My Time and Stay With Me sold well, while Hold Me, a duet with Whitney Houston, brought the diva to prominence.

Other post-crash Pendergrass albums included Working It Back (1985) and Joy (1988), the title track of which climbed to number one on the R&B charts.

In 1996, he starred alongside Stephanie Mills in the touring production of the gospel musical Your Arm's Too Short To Box With God. Two years later, Pendergrass released his autobiography, Truly Blessed.

In later years, Pendergrass became an advocate for people with spinal cord injuries, forming the Teddy P alliance. In 2009, he underwent surgery for colon cancer but never fully recovered.

He died on January 13, 2010, at 59 years old.