Teddy Pendergrass, Soul Man

Theodore Dereese “Teddy” Pendergrass was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a working class father and mother. After his father left the family, he was raised by his mother, Ida Pendergrass, a religious sharecropper’s daughter from South Carolina, the rhythm-and-blues state.

Theodore’s mother discovered his voice when he began singing in church at only 2 ½ years old. His love of music evolved into performing in the church choir, and at age 6, being chosen for the All-City Elementary School Boys Choir. His interest in music continued when he accompanied his mother to work at Sciollo’s, a Philadelphia supper club, where he heard artists like Connie Francis, Chubby Checker and Bobby Darin.

At age 10, he took up the drums and became a junior church deacon. He attended Thomas Edison High School for Boys in North Philadelphia. He sang in a high school group, but dropped out in the 11th grade to record his first song, “Angel with Muddy Feet,” which was not a success.

In 1968, right after high school, Pendergrass began working as a waiter in Atlantic City at Edgehills restaurant and hotel. It was at Edgehills that R & B artist Little Royce was performing and was looking for a drummer. Teddy auditioned and won the job.

People recognized his name and he gained experience as a musician playing with Little Royce. A year later, Harold Melvin of the Blue Notes, a Philadelphia-based nationally known soul group, was reorganizing and selected Pendergrass as the group’s drummer.

In 1970, as the Blue Notes went on to regroup, Pendergrass became the lead vocalist. The group toured nationally and overseas and landed a record deal with Philadelphia International Records. From 1971 to 1975, with Pendergrass as the vocalist, they scored a group of hit singles including “The Love I lost,” “Yesterday I Had The Blues,” “Wake Up Everybody” and the Grammy-nominated “If You Don’t Know Me.”

Pendergrass’ major career move was leaving the Blue Notes late in 1975 to become a successful solo artist. He achieved great musical success in the form of awards, hit singles, hit albums, money and fame. He signed with Philadelphia International Records. Pendergrass became the first black male singer in history to record five consecutive multi-platinum albums, with over 500,000 sales each. These albums were Teddy

Pendergrass, Life Is A Song Worth Singing, Teddy, Teddy Live and TP. His famous disco hit which played at dance halls and crossed over to the white pop audience was “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose.” He also received five Grammy nominations as a solo artist, for songs that included the singles “Close the Door” in 1979 and “I Can’t Live Without You” in 1982.

Pendergrass’ popularity became huge at the end of the 1970s with sold-out shows coast to coast. He had received five platinum and two gold albums in six short years. He also upset the competition for the number one male R & B artist, which included artists such as Barry White and Marvin Gaye.    

Pendergrass’ life changed in March of 1982. A car accident in Philadelphia left him paralyzed and permanently wheelchair-bound. His church upbringing and religious Baptist background gave him the strength to undertake a serious program of rehabilitation. He endured six months in the hospital and rehab before returning home. His record label released a series of albums of unrecorded material while he was in recovery.

Pendergrass returned to recording the year after the accident. The year 1985 marked his return to the stage with an emotional performance of Ashford and Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.” This was before a live Philadelphia audience of 99,000 and was broadcast worldwide.

Pendergrass got married for the first time in 1987 to dancer Karen Still, who had danced in his shows. Still became his primary caregiver and they were married for 16 years. They amicably divorced in 2003.

Through the latter part of the 1980s, he recorded Love Language followed by Working It Back and Truly Blessed. His injury and recovery helped to build a close friendship with another Philadelphia performer—musician and singer Patty La Belle.

Over the decade of the 1990s he released several albums, culminating with the single “Joy” from the album of the same name. He received a Grammy nomination for Joy in 1997 and was one of the first artists featured on the VH-1 program, Behind The Music.

Nineteen years after his accident, on Memorial weekend in 2001, he returned to Atlantic City at the Trump Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino for two sold-out shows. These shows were met with widespread recognition. The following year, he performed at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. There is a recording on YouTube of him performing the single “Joy” at the Wiltern Theater.

Pendergrass retired from music in 2006. In 2007, he briefly returned to perform in ‘Teddy 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope & Possibilities,’ a 25th anniversary awards ceremony marking the date of his accident and raising funds for his charity, The Teddy Pendergrass Alliance.

Pendergrass’ experience of life in a wheelchair inspired him to create the Alliance. This charity provides scholarships, works with universities to help people with spinal cord injuries, and encourages businesses to hire these people. This organization created a partnership with the National Spinal Cord Injury Association (NSCIA) to increase their influence. Pendergrass and NSCIA CEO Maurice Roth announced this agreement at the JFK Center for the Performing Arts at the 2006 NSCIA Hall of Fame induction.

“I know what it’s like to face a life-changing event like spinal cord injury and I know how much the right support can mean to someone in the first few days and weeks after the injury,” Pendergrass said at the event. “I’ve been truly blessed in my life and this is a chance for me to make a difference for others in the most direct way I can think of.”

Teddy Pendergrass passed away on January 13, 2010, after being hospitalized for ongoing respiratory failure, with wife Joan Williams by his side. He was 59 years old. He is survived by three children and two stepdaughters.

—Robert Sondak

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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