Theodore DeReese "Teddy" Pendergrass (March 26, 1950 – January 13, 2010) was an American R&B/soul singer and songwriter. Pendergrass first rose to fame as lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in the 1970s before a successful solo career at the end of the decade. In 1982, he was severely injured in an auto accident in Philadelphia, resulting in his being paralyzed from the waist down. After his injury, he founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a foundation that helps those with spinal cord injuries. Pendergrass commemorated 25 years of living after his spinal cord injury with star filled event, 'Teddy 25 - A Celebration of Life' at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center. His last performance was on a PBS special at Atlantic City's Borgata Casino in November 2008.
Pendergrass was born Theodore DeReese Pendergrass at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the only child of Jesse Pendergrass and Ida Geraldine Epps. When Pendergrass was still very young, his father left the family; Jesse Pendergrass was murdered when Teddy was 12. Pendergrass grew up in Philadelphia and sang often at church. He dreamed of being a pastor and got his wish when, at 10, he was ordained a minister (according to author Robert Ewell Greene). He also took up drums during this time and was a junior deacon of his church. Pendergrass attended Thomas Edison High School for Boys in North Philadelphia (now closed). He sang with the Edison Mastersingers. He dropped out in the eleventh grade to enter the music business, recording his first song "Angel With Muddy Feet." The recording, however, was not a commercial success.
Pendergrass played drums for several local Philadelphia bands, eventually becoming the drummer of The Cadillacs. In 1970, the singer was spotted by the Blue Notes' founder, Harold Melvin (1939–1997), who convinced Pendergrass to play drums in the group. However, during a performance, Pendergrass began singing along, and Melvin, impressed by his vocals, made him the lead singer. Before Pendergrass joined the group, the Blue Notes had struggled to find success. That all changed when they landed a recording deal with Philadelphia International Records in 1971, thus beginning Pendergrass's successful collaboration with label founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: 1972-1977
In 1972, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes released their first single, a slow, solemn ballad titled "I Miss You". The song was originally written for the Dells, but the group passed on it. Noting how Pendergrass sounded like Dells lead singer Marvin Junior, Kenny Gamble decided to build the song with Pendergrass, then only 21 at the time of the recording. Pendergrass sings much of the song in a raspy baritone wail that would become his trademark. The song also featured Blue Notes member Lloyd Parks singing falsetto in the background and spotlighted Harold Melvin adding in a rap near the end of the song as Pendergrass kept singing, feigning tears. The song, one of Gamble and Huff's most creative productions, became a major rhythm and blues hit and put the Blue Notes on the map.
The group's follow-up single, "If You Don't Know Me by Now", brought the group to the mainstream with the song reaching the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 while also reaching number-one on the soul singles chart. Like "I Miss You" before it, the song was originally intended for a different artist, fellow Philadelphian native Patti LaBelle and her group Labelle but the group could not record it due to scheduling conflicts. Pendergrass and LaBelle developed a close friendship that would last until Pendergrass' death.
The group rode to fame with several more releases over the years including "The Love I Lost", a song which predated the upcoming disco music scene; the ballad "Hope That We Can Be Together Soon", and socially conscious singles "Wake Up Everybody" and "Bad Luck", the latter song about the Watergate scandal. One of the group's important singles was their original version of the Philly soul classic, "Don't Leave Me This Way", which turned into a disco smash when Motown artist Thelma Houston released her version in 1976. By 1975, Pendergrass and Harold Melvin were at odds, mainly over monetary issues and personality conflicts. Despite the fact that Pendergrass sung all of the group's songs, Melvin was controlling the group's finances. At one point, Pendergrass wanted the group to be renamed "Teddy Pendergrass and the Blue Notes" because fans kept mistaking him as Melvin. Pendergrass left the group in 1977 and the Blue Notes struggled with his replacements. They eventually left Philadelphia International and by the early 1980s had disbanded for good.
Early solo success
In 1977, Pendergrass released his self-titled album, which went platinum on the strength of the disco hit, "I Don't Love You Anymore". Its follow-up single, "The Whole Town's Laughing At Me", became a top 20 R&B hit. It was quickly followed by Life Is a Song Worth Singing, in 1978. That album was even more successful with its singles including "Only You" and "Close the Door". The disco single, "Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose" was popular in dance clubs. The year 1979 brought two successes, Teddy and the live release, Live Coast to Coast. Hits off Teddy included "Come and Go With Me" and "Turn Off the Lights". His 1980 album, TP, included his signature song, "Love TKO" and the Ashford & Simpson composition, "Is It Still Good to You". Between 1977 and 1981, Pendergrass landed five consecutive platinum albums, which was a then-record setting number for a rhythm and blues artist.
Pendergrass' popularity became massive at the end of 1977. With sold-out audiences packing his shows, Pendergrass' manager soon noticed that a huge number of his audience consisted of women of all races. They devised a plan for Pendergrass' next tour to play to just female audiences, starting a trend that continues today called "women's only concerts". With five platinum albums and two gold albums, Pendergrass was on his way to be what the media was calling him, "the black Elvis", not only in terms of his crossover popularity but also due to him buying a mansion akin to Elvis' Graceland, located just outside of his hometown of Philadelphia. By early 1982, Pendergrass was the leading R&B male artist of his day usurping competition including closest rivals Marvin Gaye and Barry White. In 1980, the Isley Brothers released "Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time for Love)" to compete with Pendergrass' "Turn Off the Lights", which sensed Pendergrass' influence on the quiet storm format of black music.
On March 18, 1982, in the East Falls section of Philadelphia on Lincoln Drive near Rittenhouse Street, Pendergrass was involved in an automobile accident. The brakes failed on his 1981 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, causing the car to hit a guard rail, cross into the opposite traffic lane, and hit two trees. Pendergrass and his passenger, Tenika Watson, a nightclub performer with whom Pendergrass was acquainted, were trapped in the wreckage for 45 minutes. While Watson walked away from the accident with minor injuries, Pendergrass suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving him a quadraplegic, paralyzed from the chest down.
Later solo career
Pendergrass got well-wishes from thousands of his fans during his recovery. In August 1982, his label released This One's for You, which failed to chart successfully, as did 1983's Heaven Only Knows. Both albums included material Pendergrass had recorded prior to his accident. The albums completed Pendergrass' contract with Philadelphia International, in which by that time Pendergrass decided to return to the studio to work on new music and struggled to find a recording deal. Eventually signing a deal and completing physical therapy, Pendergrass released Love Language in 1984. The album included the pop ballad "Hold Me", featuring a then unknown Whitney Houston.
On July 13, 1985, Pendergrass made an emotional return to the stage at the historic Live Aid concert in Philadelphia in front of a live audience of over 99,000 and 2 billion television viewers. It was the 35-year-old's first live performance following his 1982 accident. Pendergrass tearfully thanked the audience for keeping him in their well-wishes and then performed the Ashford & Simpson classic, "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)". In 1988, Pendergrass scored his first R&B number-one hit in nearly a decade when the new jack swing-styled "Joy", off his album of the same name, was released. A video of the song was in heavy rotation on BET. It was also his final Hot 100 charted single, peaking at number 77. Also, Pendergrass' voice was heard on the jingles of a back then local Philadelphia radio station, WSNI-FM.
Pendergrass kept recording through the 1990s. One of the singer's final hits was the hip-hop leaning "Believe in Love", released in 1994. In 1996, he starred alongside Stephanie Mills in the touring production of the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. In 1998, Pendergrass released his autobiography entitled, Truly Blessed.
Pendergrass did a concert at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, California on February 14, 2002 entitled "The Power of Love". The concert became the album From Teddy, With Love, which was released on the Razor & Tie record label later that year. It was his second (after Live! Coast to Coast) and final live album. Clips of the concert, in particular his performance of his comeback song "Joy", can still be seen on YouTube. In his later years, Pendergrass' “Wake Up Everybody” has been covered by a diverse range of acts from Simply Red to Patti LaBelle and was chosen as a rallying cry during the 2004 Presidential campaign by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds to mobilize voters. In addition, Little Brother, Kanye West, Cam'ron, Twista, Ghostface, Tyrese Gibson, 9th Wonder, DMX and DJ Green Lantern have utilized his works.
In 2006, Pendergrass announced his retirement from the music business. In 2007, he briefly returned to performing to participate in Teddy 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope & Possibilities, a 25th anniversary awards ceremony that marked Pendergrass' accident date, but also raised money for his charity, The Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, and honored those who helped Pendergrass since his accident
Pendergrass had four children, Tisha, LaDonna, Tamon and Teddy II. In 1987, he married a former Philadanco dancer named Karen Still, who had also danced in his shows. Karen was Pendergrass' primary caregiver. The couple amicably divorced in 2003. Pendergrass met Joan Williams in the spring of 2006. Pendergrass proposed to Joan after four months and they married in a private ceremony officiated by his Pastor Allyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church on Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008. A formal wedding was celebrated at The Ocean Cliff Resort in Newport, Rhode Island on September 6, 2008.
As members of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, Joan Pendergrass set up The Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church Youth Fund in the name of Pendergrass to provide assistance and a center for Philadelphia's inner city youth.
He published his autobiography, Truly Blessed, in 1992. There are plans to make a feature film biopic of Pendergrass's life. Tyrese Gibson is set to star as the late singer
On June 5, 2009, Pendergrass underwent successful surgery for colon cancer and recovered to return home. A few weeks later he returned to the hospital with respiratory issues. After seven months, he died of respiratory failure on January 13, 2010, at age 59 with wife Joan by his side, while hospitalized at Bryn Mawr Hospital in suburban Philadelphia. He was survived by his mother Ida, wife Joan, three children; Tisha, Teddy II, LaDonna, stepdaughters Sherilla Leftrade, Jessica Avila and four grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.
Pendergrass in 1981
|Birth name||Theodore DeReese Pendergrass|
|Born||March 26, 1950|
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
|Died||January 13, 2010 (aged 59)|
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, United States
|Genres||R&B, soul, gospel, jazz|
|Occupations||Singer, songwriter, composer|
|Instruments||Vocals, piano, guitar, drums|
|Associated acts||Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes|