January 13, 2010 – Teddy Pendergrass was born March 26th 1950 in Kingstree, South Carolina. When he 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). Pendergrass also took up drums during this time and was a junior deacon of his church. He 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”.
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. When, during a performance, Pendergrass began singing along, 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.
In 1972, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes released their first single, a slow, solemn ballad entitled “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 international fame with several more releases over the years including “The Love I Lost”, a song that 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 sang most 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 for Melvin. Pendergrass left the group in 1975 and the Blue Notes struggled with his replacements. They eventually left Philadelphia International and toiled in relative obscurity, until Melvin’s death in 1997. As of 2014, a version of the group still tours the old school circuit, performing as Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes.
Embarking on a solo career Pendergrass enjoyed a string of hit singles and albums throughout the 1970s, including The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me, Close the Door, Love T.K.O and Turn Off The Lights. Between 1977 and 1981, Pendergrass landed four 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, his 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 only concerts.” With four platinum albums and two gold albums, Pendergrass was on his way to being what the media called “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 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.
Tragically, on March 18, 1982, a car crash with his Rolls Royce Silver Shadow left Teddy paralyzed from the chest down. He kept recording but filed to chart at first, eventually signing a deal and completing physical therapy, he released Love Language in 1984. The album included the pop ballad “Hold Me”, featuring a then-still unknown Whitney Houston.
He performed on 13 July ’85, at the historic Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, and continued to record throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Five times Grammy Award nominee, Teddy retired in 2006, but he did briefly return to performing to take part in the 2007, Teddy 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope & Possibilities, an awards ceremony that marked the 25th anniversary of his accident, raised money for his charity, The Teddy Pendergrass Alliance.
On June 5, 2009, Pendergrass underwent successful surgery for colon cancer and returned home to recover. 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