Have you seen the new Showtime documentary Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me? I recommend it with a bit of reservation related to some rather dubious accusations that are thrown around by people who may, or may not, be reliable. The documentary tells the tragic story of a star who rose from humble beginnings to the verge of superstardom only to be disabled in a terrible automobile accident. But the film’s most important message and the one that makes it worthwhile viewing is that Pendergrass, in a wheelchair, his career seemingly over and intent on suicide, chose life.
Pendergrass grew up on the mean streets of North Philadelphia. He and his mother had moved there from South Carolina when Pendergrass was an infant. His father Jesse left the family early on and was later stabbed to death. The young Pendergrass began singing in church and had dreams of becoming a pastor, a dream he realized when he became an ordained minister at the age of ten. Around the same time, Pendergrass began to play the drums.
Pendergrass attended high school in North Philadelphia but dropped out in his junior year to pursue a career in music. He released one single, “Angel With Muddy Feet,” but it didn’t gain any traction. Pendergrass played drums for a number of local bands eventually landing in one called the Cadillacs (not the same group as the popular Cadillacs of New York City). At that time, Harold Melvin had founded a group called the Blue Notes and in 1970, when he heard Pendergrass play, Melvin asked him to become the group’s drummer. The Blue Notes hadn’t been able to find much success at that point. Then, one night Pendergrass sang along with the group from his drum chair. Melvin knew a good voice when he heard it and he moved Pendergrass from the drum set behind the group to the lead singer position center stage.
Things changed quickly for the Blue Notes after that and in 1971 they signed with Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. The first Blue Notes single for P.I.R. was a ballad called “I Miss You.” The song had been intended for the Dells but when they rejected it, Kenny Gamble, with the similarity of Pendergrass’ voice with that of Dells lead Marvin Junior in mind, chose Pendergrass to sing lead on the track with fellow Blue Note Lloyd Parks handling the falsetto parts and Harold Melvin himself handling an early rap part at the end of the song. “I Miss You” was a major hit on the R&B chart, reaching #4 while almost making it into the Top 50 on the pop chart. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were on their way but much bigger things were still ahead.
The second Blue Notes single was once again a song originally intended for another artist, in this case, Labelle. A scheduling conflict prevented the Philadelphia trio from recording the song and it fell into the lap of the Blue Notes. It was a huge break for the group because “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” was one of Gamble and Huff’s most magnificent creations. The resulting single rose to the top of the R&B chart hit the Top 10 on the pop chart and made Teddy Pendergrass a star. There was just one problem — most people thought that the guy out front with the big voice was Harold Melvin.
Pendergrass kept leading the way on subsequent Blue Notes hits like “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” “Wake Up Everybody,” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” At some point, Pendergrass became unhappy with the way Melvin was handling the group’s finances, i.e. paying himself much more than the other group members, including Pendergrass. At the same time, Pendergrass was upset that he wasn’t getting the recognition that he had earned as the lead voice on all of those hits. He asked that the group be renamed Teddy Pendergrass & the Blue Notes but Melvin wasn’t having it and in 1975, Pendergrass left the group to pursue a solo career.
Teddy Pendergrass on his own was an immediate star. Continuing to work with Gamble and Huff, the self-titled Teddy Pendergrass debut album, which included the hit singles “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me,” went platinum in 1977. The following year the album Life is a Song Worth Singing, did even better with the singles “Only You” and especially the smash hit “Close the Door” spurring sales. The latter song was the one that turned Pendergrass into an undeniable sex symbol.
The next album, Teddy, topped the R&B chart for eight weeks helped by the songs “Come Go With Me,” “Turn Off the Lights,” and “Do Me.” After the Live Coast to Coast album, Pendergrass released the perhaps his greatest album, TP. The album included massively popular tracks like “Feel the Fire,” a duet with Stephanie Mills, the Ashford and Simpson song “Is It Still Good To Ya,” and the classic “Love T.K.O,” a song written by Cecil Womack and Gip Noble, Jr. and first recorded by David Oliver. The Pendergrass cover reached #2 on the Billboard R&B chart and skirted the Top 40 on the pop chart. By 1982, Pendergrass, with his four consecutive platinum albums, was perhaps the biggest star in R&B rivaling even giants like Marvin Gaye. In light of his crossover success, some in the media were even referring to him as the “black Elvis.”
With Pendergrass at the peak of his success, on the verge of becoming an international superstar, fate intervened. On the night of March 18, 1982, Pendergrass was driving his Rolls Royce in Philadelphia. In the passenger seat was a performer named Tenika Watson who Pendergrass met earlier that evening. Pendergrass lost control of the car and hit a tree. He and his passenger were trapped in the wreckage for 45 minutes. Watson, who was later revealed to be transgender, walked away with scratches. Pendergrass had been struck in the chest by a dome in the center of the steering wheel, a decorative feature. The blow severed his spinal cord and he was left a quadriplegic.
Unsurprisingly, Pendergrass became depressed in the wake of the accident. He spoke about committing suicide. Desperately looking for a way to prevent Pendergrass from taking his own life his psychiatrist, a quadriplegic himself, hit on the idea of holding a mock funeral so that Pendergrass could see how much he meant to his family and friends. The radical approach worked and Pendergrass emerged from the ceremony determined to live.
Still, it wasn’t going to be easy. Pendergrass was determined to continue his career and with the help of his doctor, an apparatus was created that when worn would help Pendergrass find enough air to sing. But his contract with P.I.R. had expired and other record labels had no interest in signing him given his physical condition. In 1984, Pendergrass finally got a new record deal and released the album Love Language. The album got as far as #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified as a Gold album.
One of the most emotional moments in popular music history came on July 13, 1985, at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia. Pendergrass had chosen a daunting venue for his return to live performance and he was so nervous that he almost didn’t go through with it. But when he rolled out on stage in his wheelchair during Ashford and Simpson’s set the ovation from his hometown crowd that greeted him seemed to go on forever. Together with his old friends he performed a tearful version of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” a song that had been a huge hit for Diana Ross and couldn’t have been more appropriate for the moment.
By 1988, Pendergrass was back on top of the charts with the single “Joy” and in 1994 he had another hit, albeit one of his last, with “Believe in Love.” Four years later, Pendergrass published his autobiography Truly Blessed. In 2002, he turned his Power of Love concert which had taken place at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles into the live album From Teddy, With Love. In 2006, Pendergrass announced that he would retire from the music business although he did return to perform at the Teddy 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope & Possibilities concert the following year. The concert marked the 25th anniversary of the accident while also raising money for the charity that Pendergrass had established.
Pendergrass faced colon cancer surgery in 2009. The surgery was successful but several weeks later he was back in the hospital with respiratory problems. On January 13, 2010, Teddy Pendergrass died at a hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, not far from where he had grown up. On that day we lost one of the greatest voices of our time. Pendergrass was only 59 years old at the time of his death but by choosing life all of those years earlier he was able to enjoy the love of his family, friends, and fans for many years after his accident.