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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system