By Gil Kaufman
One of the world’s great soul men, singer Teddy Pendergrass, died at age 59 on Wednesday after a long battle with colon cancer. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Pendergrass, who was paralyzed after a 1982 car accident, died in a Philly hospital eight months after undergoing colon cancer surgery and suffering through a difficult recovery.
In his prime in the 1970s, Pendergrass was one of the premier R&B singers in America, leading Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes to the top of the charts with indelible soul classics such as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “I Miss You.”
After leaving the Blue Notes in 1976, Pendergrass recorded a series of solo hits for the legendary Philadelphia International label into the 1980s, including his signature between-the-sheets hit, “Love T.K.O.” Unlike some of the other velvety Philly-sound singers such as Al Green, Pendergrass’ deep baritone had a gritty, masculine edge that he worked out on seductive slow jams like “Feel the Fire, “Close the Door,” “Come Go With Me,” “Turn off the Lights” and “It’s Time for Love.” He created a new template for the modern R&B singer with his aggressive brand of soul and smooth, ladies-man image on songs that were sexually charged but never coarse or vulgar.
The singer’s life was forever altered in 1982, when he crashed his Rolls Royce in Philadelphia, leaving the then-31-year-old singer paralyzed from the waist down. After a year of rehabilitation, he returned in 1983 with the album Love Language and performed from his wheelchair at Live Aid in 1985, but his musical career would never regain its momentum. The powerful, seductive persona that Pendergrass had honed in his peak years had been diminished in the aftermath of the crash, as was the strength of his voice, but Pendergrass was not entirely deterred by his challenge. He continued to record sporadically throughout the 1980s, and in 1998, he formed the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance to benefit victims of spinal cord injuries.
Like many Philly stars, Pendergrass’ hits were written and produced by the legendary team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who recounted Pendergrass’ solo debut at a Los Angeles nightclub in an interview with Philly radio station WDAS. “That night I saw the coming of a superstar,” Huff said. “When Teddy walked out on the stage, he didn’t even open his mouth and the place went crazy with screaming females. He was just so dynamic, and when he started singing, he just blew them away.”
Gamble and Huff said in a statement on their Web site that they were “deeply saddened” by the death of the man they called their best friend and “one of the greatest.”
Pendergrass was born in 1950 in North Philadelphia, where he was raised by his mother, Ida Epps. He began singing early, honing his chops at the ripe age of 2 by belting out gospel standards at the Glad Tidings Baptist Church alongside his mother.
Pendergrass got his start as a drummer, working behind the Philly band the Cadillacs and then joining Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in 1970. He was promoted to lead singer of that group the next year after vocalist John Atkins quit. The act was signed to Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972 and began releasing a string of hit singles that included “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Bad Luck.”
Pendergrass left the Blue Notes at the peak of their success in 1976 to go solo. His first post-crash album in 1984 featured a duet with the then-unknown Whitney Houston on the song “Hold Me.” He released his autobiography, “Truly Blessed,” in 1998 and retired from music in 2006.