In memoriam: Teddy Pendergrass (1950-2010)

Pictures and a thousand words on a wickedly powerful soul singer who got a raw deal.

Teddy Pendergrass’ gargantuan baritone cut like a linebacker through the hundreds of soul, disco and funk records in my collection. It was that rare beast, its weight and tone capable of controlling the most virile of disco grooves, rising above the swelling strings, swishing hi-hats and sighing backing vocals that marked so much of the musical soundscape his group, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, tamed in the mid-1970s.

Of course, Pendergrass, who died Wednesday at age 59, after a troubled recovery from colon cancer surgery, wore two hats over the course of his platinum- and gold-bedecked career: not only was he among the finest singers of uptempo dance fare, he was one of the great balladeers in R&B history. With a twist.

Known variously as Teddy P, TP or Teddy Bear to a kajillion swooning women, he was also a John Wayne-like figure to a kajillion thankful men, in part due to the nature of his ballad style: Teddy loved you, but on equal terms. That voice wouldn’t allow for weakness or acquiescence: sex was a team sport in Teddy’s world. When he dialed down the volume, the intensity remained, sort of like Rudolph’s glowing red nose through a dream filter. Teddy staked out ground rules everybody could be happy with, and it paid off in terms of both records sold and babies made: he was the first black male to score five consecutive multi-million selling albums.

Pendergrass’ stardom blossomed quickly. He was drumming in the support band for a failed soul act in 1970, when group leader Harold Melvin asked him to sing a few numbers at the end of a long night. The untutored 20-year-old evidently blew Melvin’s mind; he was promoted to lead singer on the spot.

Armed with a world-class talent, Melvin’s Blue Notes soon signed to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records (PIR), and proceeded to conquer new areas in R&B and pop music over the next half-decade. PIR’s thickly textured take on upscale soul music would eventually morph into disco in the hands of less-inspired practitioners, but before the genre got watered down, groups like Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes were cutting some of the most spine-tingling, positively charged records in the country.

“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (#3 U.S., 1972) was the first to go super-nova, a feisty torch ballad that introduced Teddy’s eruptive style. But it was the next single, a sublimely insistent groover called “The Love I Lost” (#7 U.S., 1973), that moved the goal posts. R&B had been getting glitzier for a few years by the time “Lost” was cut, but it needed a defining sound, which it got once session drummer Earl Young laid down a 4/4 beat heavy on hissing, piston-like hi-hat work. That thumping, bumping drum pattern basically defined club music for the next decade, and remains a rhythmic feature thirty-odd years later. Teddy’s voice held the other key: it was church, but it was street too. Teddy testified, like Ronnie Isley and Al Green testified, but he also growled and purred like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. There would be no falsetto trilling in Teddy’s vocals: he emoted in shades of blue, hoarse and commanding, shouted and demanding. Years before Teddy perfected his style of erotic suggestiveness, he was as direct as a drill sergeant, and this is the Teddy Pendergrass I prefer.

The fiery, uptempo Blue Notes songs smack of genius: “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” “Where Are All My Friends,” “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back),” “Tell The World How I Feel About ‘Cha  Baby” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” are of a piece – proud, blue-collar and strong-willed.

“Bad Luck” (#15 U.S., 1975), short-listed for my favourite disco song of all-time, is an amazingly kinetic creation. Kick-started by a memorably melodic descending bass line, it quickly settles into an indelibly even-keeled, 4/4 strut, with Pendergrass fighting for attention against a pounding piano counterpoint – and winning, especially once the Blue Notes join him on the chorus: “Baad luuck, that’s what you got, that’s what you got, you got baad luuck…” In the song’s giddy closing minutes, Teddy cracks open the newspaper to read how bad luck has even infected the highest office in the land: Dick Nixon’s been impeached, y’all! Grim smiles abound. “Baad luuck, that’s what you got, that’s what you got…”

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1975) is towering, inferno-like. Motown gave it a spit-polish and Thelma Houston swung it to #1 in her own version in 1977, but where hers is desperate and somewhat conciliatory, Teddy’s got a mad-on and won’t give up without a fight. There’s an 11-minute version out there that’ll have your ankles sore from tapping, even if you’ve been strapped to a gurney, I’m serious. It’s fantastic. It’s probably how you’d feel after Sandra Bullock had been driving your runaway bus, okay? And every time I play it I wonder whether Teddy was coughing up blood after the final take.

Stardom is a tough old horse to tame. By 1975, Pendergrass felt he was destined for bigger things, and left the group. While The Blue Notes carried on with a tattered but recognizable brand, he went stratospheric from the moment his first solo record dropped in 1977. Still tied to the PIR hit-making machine, the appealing mix of invigorating dance songs and creamy bedroom ballads brought him wider recognition as a solo artist, inheriting the R&B superstar mantle from Al Green, and running with it until March 18, 1982, when he was paralyzed from the waist down in a horrific car crash.

Broken but unbowed, Pendergrass wowed an emotional hometown Philadelphia audience at Live Aid on July 13, 1985. He continued to record, scoring hits well into the 1990s, and charting albums right up until his retirement in 2006. He formed the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a charity dedicated to providing education and occupational opportunities to people with spinal cord injuries. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009.

Never one to dwell on “bad luck,” Teddy Pendergrass forged ahead with dignity and determination, and I’d like to think he’s walking on a cloud somewhere above Philadelphia right now. That’s a corny sentiment I’ll be cringing over as soon as I hit “publish,” but I’m sticking by it.

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