Although Theodore DeReese Pendergrass, better known as Teddy Pendergrass, was born in South Carolina to Jesse and Ida Geraldine Pendergrass, it will be in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he was raised that he will stake his claim to fame.
A man who tasted adversity, as well as, fame and wealth, Pendergrass hardly knew his father who was stabbed to death on June 13, 1962 registering his first tragedy at 12. He sang in church and took up drumming as well.
Having dropped out of high school, Pendergrass took to playing drums for several local Philadelphia bands. In 1970, he was spotted by the Blue Notes’ founder, Harold Melvin, who convinced him to play drums in the group.
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But having a singing background coupled with his powerful voice, Pendergrass began singing along during a performance, and Melvin impressed by his vocals, made him the lead singer without hesitation, especially when the Blue Notes had struggled to find success.
In 1971, Blue Notes founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff landed a recording deal with Philadelphia International Records. Pendergrass debuted as a singer on the Blue Notes’ 1972 single “I Miss You,” the track gave the Blue Notes their first ever Top Ten R&B hit.
It didn’t take long for Pendergrass to become Philly’s number one sex symbol, thanks to a gruff baritone delivery and smooth stage appearance.
Bridging the gap between funk and disco, Philly soul became a phenomenon, largely powered by the songwriting-production duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who churned out hits not only for Melvin but also the O’Jays, the Three Degrees, Patti LaBelle, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls and others.
While the Pendergrass-Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes collaboration produced hits such as Wake Up Everybody, If You Don’t Know Me By Now, The Love I Lost, and Don’t Leave Me This Way, many people assumed Harold Melvin was the lead singer. Not getting enough credit or cash, Pendergrass quit the band in 1976.
Pendergrass then launched a successful solo career under the Philadelphia International label, releasing five consecutive platinum albums, a record at the time for an African-American R&B artist. He fathered four children.
However, tragedy struck once gain in 1978, when Taaz Lang, his girlfriend and first manager, was shot dead at her doorstep. The case remains unsolved.
With new songs and successes, Teddy’s sex appeal oozed. He was sexy, tall, handsome and stylish. Life was good. He had a huge, Graceland-like mansion, a fleet of luxury cars, a stable of horses, even his own jeans label.
Guys loved him because he got women in the mood for them. Women found him irresistible, and Pendergrass felt obliged to love as many of them back as he possibly could. “They rushed the stage and threw their underwear at him when he performed. They disguised themselves as maids to get into his hotel room.” Gordon, his manager after Lang conceived the big idea to stage women-only concerts which were sold out.
But Pendergrass, as well as, many of the top black entertainers suffered sabotage. So while he was a commanding presence on the R&B circuit selling millions of albums and at one point, registering five consecutive Top Ten hits — between 1977 and 1982, the pop mainstream mostly ignored him by not playing his music on pop radio. The only single that managed to dent the Top 40 on the Hot 100 was “Close the Door.” He was only nominated for Grammys within his genre which he did not win.
But his vibes “Turn off the lights and light a candle / Tonight I’m in a romantic mood / Let’s take a shower together / I’ll wash your body and you’ll wash mine / Rub me down with some hot oils, baby, yeah / And I’ll do the same thing to you,” were beloved and as a solo artist, Pendergrass had four platinum albums in a row.
Four years after Lang’s murder outside her home and when Pendergrass was on the verge of becoming a true global superstar, he was involved in a car crash. In 1982, driving home one night, he crashed his green Rolls-Royce into a tree, breaking his neck and damaging his spinal cord. He would never walk again. At 31, he was wheelchair bound and after years of battling depression and suicidal thoughts, returned to the recording studio. His comeback album went gold.
Not letting his disability dictate his life, he began to sing and perform again and in true Pendergrass fashion, his comeback was in front of the largest possible audience: Live Aid, which took place in his home town in 1985.
Pendergrass went on to record several more albums and became just about the first wheelchair-user in mainstream music, appearing on stage and in videos. Curiously, he regained some of his faculties so much so that women continued flocking to him, prompting his wife Karen, who had endured his philandering ways for years to seek divorce in 2002, saying she couldn’t compete with the women anymore.
Pendergrass announced his retirement in 2007 passing away from respiratory failure or cancer in January 2010. He dedicated his life to advocating for spinal cord injury survivors.