Teddy Pendergrass: Philadelphia soul singer who had hits with 'If You Don't Know Me by Now' and 'Close the Door'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

At his best, Teddy Pendergrass was an unsurpassable soul singer and such performances as "If You Don't Know Me by Now", "Don't Leave Me This Way" (both made with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), "Close the Door" and "Love T.K.O." will endure as long as records are made. Unfortunately, he often recorded mediocre material and spent too much time cultivating his "ladies only" repertoire.

Unlike the soul singers of the 1960s, the good-looking Pendergrass took his companions into the bedroom and memorably, in "Turn off the Lights" (1979), gave clear instructions as to how he liked to be washed in the shower. As he told reporters at the time, "I'm not trying to satisfy one person's desire. I'm trying to satisfy millions of people – and that's not easy." It was ham right off the bone and it has regularly been parodied with good humour by Lenny Henry as Theophilus P. Wildebeeste.

Theodore Pendergrass was born in Philadelphia in March 1950 and, like Theodore Roosevelt, was always known as "Teddy". He was raised in poverty but with a strict religious background, which found him singing in choirs when he was six and which fostered a lifelong interest in gospel music. He learnt the drums and played with a local band, the Cadillacs. In 1969, the Cadillacs were invited to be the touring band for the vocal group Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a long-established doo-wop and soul group. When their lead singer, John Atkins, left in 1970, Pendergrass was offered the job.

In 1971, the group signed with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International label. Gamble and Huff wrote and produced for the group and tailored songs for Pendergrass' deep, rich and utterly soulful voice.

The first album, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (1972), included the eight-minute "I Miss You", a brilliantly intense performance which was shortened for their first single. The single did well in the US and they then had an international hit with "If You Don't Know Me By Now", which made the UK Top 10. It helped to establish TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), which is noted in particular for the Three Degrees. The song was revived by Simply Red in 1989, who followed the Blue Notes' arrangement and went to No 2.

The second album, Black and Blue (1973), included another hit single, "The Love I Lost", and then To Be True (1975) included the uncompromising US hit "Bad Luck" and also a duet with Sharon Paige, "Hope That We Can Be Together Soon".

Later in 1975 they released Wake up Everybody, and the title song, covering black issues, was another success. The following year Thelma Houston revived "Don't Leave Me This Way" for Motown, and the Blue Notes' recording was issued in competition. They made No 5, while Houston stuck at No 13. The Communards, with Sarah Jane Morris, took the song to the top in 1986.

Pendergrass felt that he was contributing the most to the group's success while Melvin was taking the credit and most of the money. After an argument it was agreed that "featuring Teddy Pendergrass" could be written on billings, but Pendergrass soon decided to leave. Gamble and Huff, not wanting to lose such a superior singer, kept him on Philadelphia International, while Melvin moved to ABC with a new lead vocalist, David Ebo. Melvin only had minor chart successes after that, although he was touring on the strength of Pendergrass' hits until his death in 1997.

Gamble and Huff emphasised Pendergrass' romantic side on the first solo album, Teddy Pendergrass (1977). The first single, "I Don't Love You Anymore", about the importance of breaking away from a partner, could easily have been directed at Melvin. The album did well and his first solo chart hit in the UK was with the slow and sultry "The Whole Town's Laughing at Me". He toured the US with the Teddy Bear Orchestra, developing his macho persona, which owed something to both Barry White and Marvin Gaye. He appeared on the charity single "Let's Clean up the Ghetto" as part of the Philadelphia All-Stars.

Taking the tempo right down, Pendergrass' second album, Life is a Song Worth Singing (1978), included his biggest-selling solo single, "Close the Door". Teddy (1979) followed and Live! Coast to Coast in the same year, which, curiously, included an inane interview with Mimi Brown. (MB: "How do you like your eggs?" TP: "Hard.") During a live concert in London at the Victoria Apollo in 1981, he was joined on stage by Stevie Wonder.

Among Pendergrass' other successes were a duet with Stephanie Mills, "Feel the Fire", and a pleasantly hoarse version of Womack and Womack's "Love T.K.O." He made his movie debut in the sub-Woody Allen film Soup for One (1982), and he performed "Dream Girl", produced by Chic, on the soundtrack.

Marvin Gaye accused Pendergrass of taking much of his style and even growing a similar beard. However, the light-hearted banter became serious when Pendergrass had an affair with Gaye's wife, Jan.

In March 1982, Pendergrass was returning home from a basketball game when his Rolls-Royce went through some railings and crashed into a tree. He had severely injured his spinal cord and for some weeks his condition was critical. He was to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Pendergrass' voice was mercifully unimpaired, although breathing was difficult, and in 1984 he released the album Love Language for Asylum. The LP included a duet with Whitney Houston, "Hold Me", which was her first chart hit. He returned to the stage in a remarkably public way – an appearance at Live Aid in 1985.

He continued to record as though nothing had happened. Workin' It Back (1985) includes several references to his dancing ability. His song "Voodoo", from the album A Little More Magic (1993), was nominated for a Grammy; but although he had several other nominations, he never secured the prize. In 1995 he set up a charitable foundation, the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, and he wrote his autobiography, Truly Blessed, in 1998. In 1996 he and Stephanie Mills toured in a gospel show, Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God, and there were plans for a musical about his life, I Am Who I Am.

Like Curtis Mayfield, his health was always a problem and recently he had developed colon cancer. He died in the hospital where he was born in 1950.

Spencer Leigh

Theodore DeReese Pendergrass, singer: born Philadelphia 26 March 1950; married 1987 Karen Still (one son, two daughters); died Philadelphia 13 January 2010.