Teddy Pendergrass' widow and son at war over wills

R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass, who died in January, with his son, Teddy Pendergrass II, and grandson Teddy III in 2008.
R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass, who died in January, with his son, Teddy Pendergrass II, and grandson Teddy III in 2008.
Posted: October 06, 2010

Teddy Pendergrass left an indelible music legacy when he died in January. He didn't leave much else.

A bank foreclosed on his Penn Valley home over the summer - the property is slated for sheriff's sale next month. There's also an outstanding car loan and a lawsuit by a former songwriting partner.

But none of that has squelched a bitter battle over the famed singer's will.

For months, Pendergrass' second wife, whom he married in 2008, has been quietly warring with his son over the remnants of his estate. Both sides have produced conflicting wills - purportedly approved by Pendergrass - that cut the other out.

Together, the documents and interviews suggest a portrait of a renowned R&B artist and Philadelphia institution whose mind and money may have been slipping away at the same time.

Last Wednesday, attorneys for Teddy Pendergrass II and his father's widow, Joan Pendergrass, met with a judge in Montgomery County, but left without an agreement. One of her attorneys said the dispute was less about money than about the singer's legacy. What that legacy includes - and who deserves to control it - has divided the family.

LaDonna Pendergrass Hollerway, one of the late singer's daughters, said she believed that Joan Pendergrass wanted only to profit from his life - through a movie, a book, or even a reality show.

"She was married to my dad for only a year, and she has turned my family upside down," said Hollerway, a hospital technician in Plano, Texas.

Joan Pendergrass declined interview requests. Her supporters deny the accusations.

"To say it's a money grab is ludicrous - there's just no money to fight about," said her attorney, Kevon Glickman, of the firm Offit Kurman.

If the root of the dispute isn't clear, the acrimony is. Three weeks ago, at the Philadelphia premiere of a television documentary about the famed singer, Teddy Pendergrass II shared a stage with his stepmother - but refused to hug her or be photographed with her.

"We simply don't see eye-to-eye," the younger Pendergrass said Friday. He declined to elaborate, except to say: "What I do know is my father did what he intended to do - and that is, put me in charge for the family."

Others say Joan Pendergrass cared deeply both for her husband and his children and is stunned to have been dragged into such a battle.

Said Jerry Pendergrass, a cousin: "She did not and does not understand why someone, anyone, would come after her for any reason, knowing that she did everything on this earth to take care of Teddy Pendergrass."

Stardom, then sadness

That anyone would need to take care of Teddy Pendergrass seemed unthinkable 30 years ago. Slim, handsome, and blessed with a smoky baritone, he rocketed to stardom with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in 1972 with the hit "If You Don't Know Me by Now."

By decade's end, Pendergrass had become a solo star and worldwide sex symbol, selling millions of albums and drawing thousands of swooning fans to his "Ladies Only" concerts. Fame brought fortune: a Rolls-Royce and a 13-acre Gladwyne estate.

Then came the 1982 crash on Lincoln Drive that left him paralyzed below the neck.

Three years later, Pendergrass traded his estate for the four-bedroom home on an acre on Flat Rock Road. Though he kept making music, his appearances dwindled. In 2006, he announced his retirement.

That year, Pendergrass, a divorcé, began dating Joan Williams, a New Balance shoe-company executive from Boston.

"She was the best thing that ever happened to him, in terms of his spirit," said Bob Lott, a music executive and a longtime friend.

The couple married in 2008 at the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Pendergrass, then 58, had a son and two adult daughters. Williams, 49, also had two adult daughters.

Theirs was a commuter marriage. Joan Pendergrass' job kept her in Boston; she'd travel to see her husband on weekends.

According to her court filings, she and Pendergrass executed a will in March 2009, naming each other sole beneficiary. If both died, the document said, the estate would be divided among their children.

Around the same time, they put the Penn Valley house on the market. It drew two or three inquiries, but no offers.

That May, Pendergrass executed a new will, according to his son. It named Teddy II as executor and sole beneficiary.

Weeks later, doctors diagnosed the singer with colon cancer. They removed the tumor, but the surgery took a toll on Pendergrass' already weak body, friends said. He spent most of his last eight months in Bryn Mawr Hospital before dying Jan. 13.

By that time, the family divide was clear. There were even two funeral receptions - an invitation-only event organized by Joan at the City Avenue Hilton, and a second hosted by his ex-wife, Karen, at a Jenkintown church hall. Pendergrass' mother, Ida, 91, came to the latter, Karen Pendergrass said.

Then came the wills.

A war over wills

Unknown to his son, Pendergrass and his wife amended their will last October to remove Teddy II from it. This time, Joan Pendergrass signed her own name on the line for her husband, adding the words "Attorney in fact for T.D.P." Those were his initials - Theodore DeReese Pendergrass.

The changes did not sit well with the son.

In court filings, Teddy Pendergrass II challenged his stepmother's claim. He said his father had "a weakened intellect" and lacked the capacity to approve the changes. He also said Joan Pendergrass' signature was not legally valid.

In the interview Friday, the younger Pendergrass, a financial adviser, said his father had never mentioned the March document or any amendment to him. "I don't believe that those wills are valid," he said.

Family friends have chosen camps. "I like Joan, but I do not believe Teddy would cut his son or his daughters or his mother totally out of the will," said George Mouzon, who said he had been friends with the singer since boyhood.

The other side includes radio personality Dyana Williams, who declined to discuss the feud but bristled at the suggestion that her old friend lacked the capacity to make decisions in his final days.

"I was there a lot - a whole lot," she said. "Teddy was very lucid, very much of sound mind."

The Rev. Alyn Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle, said that he had been present at Bryn Mawr Hospital when the couple executed the October amendment, but that he did not know the details. The pastor said the singer was sharp-witted and conversant that day - and on the day he died.

"He called for me three times that day, and I talked to him" about funeral arrangements, Waller said in an interview. "He did ask me to make sure I was going to be the one preaching the sermon."

Another cousin agreed that Pendergrass was lucid but said that he struggled to communicate.

"He talked, but you really could never understand because he had no voice," said Mack "Pee Wee" Mosely. "You had to read his lips."

In August, Montgomery County Court Judge Stanley Ott agreed that Joan Pendergrass should not have signed her name on the codicil for her husband. Ott struck the October amendment from the will.

In September, HSBC Bank won a $1.1 million judgment for the delinquent mortgage on Pendergrass' home. The house - once offered at $1.5 million, but now valued at $750,000 - is to be auctioned Nov. 24.

Pendergrass didn't write most of his songs, so there's not a lucrative royalty stream. A feature film might help rekindle sales, but there's no movie deal yet.

Still pending is the larger issue of who will control the estate. After meeting with the judge last week, both sides agreed to try to work out an informal settlement that could end the court battle, Glickman said.

As the judge observed months ago, there isn’t much left to fight over – at least, financially. Summarizing his conference with the lawyers in February, Ott wrote: “Given the realities of what this estate is worth, this might not be headed for the major trial I anticipated when I first saw these pleadings.” 

Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 610-313-8120 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

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