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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football'Mr Marmite' faced the possibility of a 28-day ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower