Soul singer Theodore “Teddy” Pendergrass, who lost a battle with colon cancer in Philadelphia on January 13 at age 59, grew up wanting to be a preacher but wound up a drummer, playing for a period with the Cadillacs of “Speedoo” renown, then with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. He joined Melvin’s group, a cabaret act that had been performing and recording for 16 years with limited success, in 1970. Before the year was out, he had become the Blue Notes’ lead singer and would help transform them into one of the world’s hottest soul vocal groups.
Singing in a husky baritone, heavily influenced by Marvin Junior of the Dells, Pendergrass led the Blue Notes on such R&B chart-topping hits as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “The Love I Lost” and the socially conscious “Wake Up Everybody,” all produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The singer remained with the producers’ Philadelphia International Records after going solo in 1977 and continued scoring big with hits like “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” “Close the Door” and “Love T.K.O.”
With Al Green having turned away from secular music and Marvin Gaye in seclusion in Hawaii, England and then Belgium, Pendergrass reigned as the soul music heartthrob of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In concert, he played his macho “come here, woman” role to the hilt, posturing like a bodybuilder, rolling his hips and singing blatantly sensual songs like “Close the Door” (“Let me give you what you’ve been waiting for”) and “Turn Off the Lights” (“Let’s take a shower together/I’ll wash your body and you’ll wash mine”).
His adoring female fans ate it up, screaming continuously, cheering his every move and phrase and singing along on nearly every song. Admiration for Pendergrass wasn’t limited to women, however. Audiences included many Teddy clones, wearing buckskin jackets and cowboy hats — a trend in African American fashion that the singer helped popularize.
On March 18, 1982, his Silver Spirit Rolls-Royce hit a guardrail and crashed into two trees near his home in Philadelphia. He suffered a spinal cord injury that left him partially paralyzed from the waist down and with limited use of his arms. News that his relatively uninjured passenger was a transsexual nightclub performer also shocked many fans. Singing from a wheelchair, Pendergrass reemerged two years later on the Asylum label and resumed having Top 10 R&B hits through 1991. They included “Hold Me” (a 1984 duet with then-little-known Whitney Houston), “Love 4/2,” “Joy” (for which he received his only Grammy Award), and “It Should Have Been You.”
Pendergrass is survived by his mother, Ida Pendergrass, his wife Joan, son Teddy II and daughters Trisha, La Donna, Sherilla and Jessica. His funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, January 23, at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Joan and Teddy Pendergrass Memorial, P.O. Box 382, Gladwyne, PA 19035.
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