Pendergrass a musical legend forever rooted in Philadelphia

Teddy Pendergrass, singing at a 2003 76ers game, was admired for the way he lived his life after a 1982 accident left him paralyzed.
Teddy Pendergrass, singing at a 2003 76ers game, was admired for the way he lived his life after a 1982 accident left him paralyzed.
Posted: January 15, 2010

When Teddy Pendergrass died Wednesday, the world lost one of the greatest and most sensual of soul singers, a gruff-voiced bedroom balladeer to whom every R&B love man from R. Kelly to Usher owes a seducer's debt.

Pendergrass, 59, died at Bryn Mawr Hospital of a protracted illness that followed a colon-cancer diagnosis last year. With his death, the Philadelphia music community mourns a man who rose from humble beginnings in North Philadelphia to become a global superstar.

Pendergrass was the brightest solo light to emerge from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International Records during the '70s, after years of scoring hits like "The Love I Lost," "Bad Luck," and "If You Don't Know Me by Now" with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the classy ensemble with which he started as a drummer.

The pillow-talking soul singer brought fans to ecstasy with his Ladies Only concerts early in his solo career, imploring them to "Close the door / Let me give you what you've been waiting for." Later, he received ardent admiration for the way he conducted his life after the 1982 crash of his Rolls Royce on Lincoln Drive, which broke his neck and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

"Teddy was one of the best," Huff said yesterday by phone from Philadelphia International's offices on South Broad Street. "I put him alongside Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye.

"Quincy Jones said Michael Jackson had a voice from heaven. Well, I guarantee you Teddy is singing alongside him right now."

Pendergrass' appeal to the opposite sex was legendary.

"He had a compelling sensual and sexual persona on and off the stage," said Dyana Williams, the longtime Philadelphia radio host, currently on WRNB-FM (107.9).

"Teddy was a titan, a great baritone voice," added Williams, a Penn Valley neighbor of Pendergrass and his second wife, Joan, whom he married in 2008. "And at the Ladies Only concerts" - a concept that Usher lifted for his 2008 tour - "the air was charged. It was electric."

At the 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, Pendergrass made a dramatic return to the spotlight, singing a powerful "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" with Ashford and Simpson.

That show, Williams recalled, "gave him the confidence that he could go out on the stage and sing. He was concerned about how people were going to take him being in a wheelchair."

"My dad was driven," said Teddy Pendergrass II, 35, the youngest of the singer's children. "Unstoppable. When he put his mind to something, he was determined to do it."

Accustomed to health problems, Pendergrass "fought as hard as he could," his son said yesterday. "You never know when your time is. He was very reflective at the end. He wanted everybody to know that he absolutely loved them, and he lived a good life."

Gamble, in a 2007 interview, described the singer as "hardheaded," adding, "Even before the accident, I always thought Teddy was the strongest person I knew."

Born Theodore DeReese Pendergrass Jr. in Kingstree, S.C., Teddy Bear, as he later became known, was raised in North Philadelphia by his mother, Ida. She worked at Sciolla's Supper Club in Northeast Philadelphia when Pendergrass was growing up. Pendergrass saw everyone from Jackie Wilson to Connie Francis there, and - displaying his trademark determination - when he was 13 he sneaked into the showroom and taught himself to play drums to a James Brown beat.

Pendergrass dropped out of Overbrook High School and in 1968 got his first job as a touring musician behind a Brown knockoff named Little Royal, based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"Whoa! That was a big culture shock. I didn't know there were that many white people in the world," Pendergrass recalled in a 2007 interview that preceded "Teddy 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope and Possibilities," a gala at the Kimmel Center to raise money for the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, which he founded in 1998 to aid people with spinal cord injuries.

Pendergrass sang three songs at the Kimmel, including his solo hits "Joy" and "When Somebody Loves You Back," the latter drawn from his remarkable run as the first African American singer to score five million-selling LPs.

It would be the final public performance by Pendergrass, who learned under the tutelage of Melvin (whom he joined in 1970, and split up with to go solo in 1976).

Ace Philadelphia International musician Bunny Sigler recalled seeing Pendergrass playing drums with Melvin at a nightclub in Miami. "They tore the house down," Sigler said. "Then later, when Teddy came out front to sing, people really went crazy."

"He was a drummer, and he had a percussive way of singing," said Bill Jolly, who served as both bandleader and "panty picker-upper" on Pendergrass' final tour, in 2003. "And if there was a part of him that was rough, that's what drummers are."

But Pendergrass wasn't just a growler. "He also has a very melodic and soft tone to him," Jolly said. "He really had an amazing voice. . . . There are lots of singers that can just sing hard, but it's the ones who can balance soft and hard that really get to you. And that's the thing about Teddy that I think was the most unique."

His positive attitude - he was cut down when his career possibilities seemed limitless - was also impressive. He coped with depression, but in 2007 summed up his attitude: "This is not a cartoon. This is not a movie. This is real life. I want to know, after something happens like this, how do you have a productive life in the meantime?"

Pendergrass' career was also notable because he became such a big star without leaving home.

"It's very difficult to become majorly large and stay in Philadelphia," Jolly said. "Most people go to L.A. or somewhere else. . . . That's why it feels like a death in the family. He was here for us."


Services

A viewing for Teddy Pendergrass will be held from noon to 8 p.m. next Friday at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, 2800 W. Cheltenham Ave., where a funeral will begin at 9 a.m. the next day.

He is survived by his wife, Joan; a son, Teddy II; daughters Trisha and

La Donna; stepdaughters Sherilla Lestrade and Jessica Avila; his mother, Ida; and seven grandchildren.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.

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