It seemed like a flashback when soul singer Teddy Pendergrass performed a steamy version of “I Want to Make It With You” this week on the Soul Train Awards telecast at the Shrine Auditorium.
“Whooo! Teddy, make me hot !,” Whoopi Goldberg screamed playfully, standing in the wings with Vanessa Williams and some other longtime fans--re-creating the atmosphere of innumerable Pendergrass performances in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s at clubs and arenas around the world.
Pendergrass was such a sex symbol that he even staged a few “For Women Only” concerts, which he’d end up standing on a stage littered with panties flung from the audience.
But Pendergrass hasn’t stood on a stage since he crashed his Rolls Royce into a tree near his Philadelphia home in 1982. The accident left him a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair. The only time, in fact, that he had even sung in public until this week was at 1985’s Live Aid concert in Philadelphia.
When Goldberg’s outburst during Tuesday night’s show was mentioned to him the next afternoon, Pendergrass smiled broadly.
“Stop, you’re embarrassing me,” he kidded, sitting in his wheelchair in a trailer-dressing room on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood moments before making an appearance on Arsenio Hall’s TV show.
But clearly the performance and the standing ovation of the Soul Train audience had touched him.
“Ah . . . there are a lot of great memories,” Pendergrass said wistfully, savoring the moment.
This week’s two television appearances are part of a campaign that Pendergrass hopes will lead to some fond new memories.
Just two weeks shy of 41, Pendergrass has recorded his fourth album since the accident, and he’s so pleased with it that he was willing--for the first time--to go through the rigors of traveling to perform the songs live.
The spiritual, sensual album, titled “Truly Blessed” and just released by Elektra Records, reminds you of Marvin Gaye and Al Green.
“How come you don’t think it reminds you of me ?” he said, showing a bit of the old Pendergrass fire.
He was just as insistent when asked about the all those long days and nights when he sat at home in Philadelphia and he struggled to rebuild his career and life.
“I don’t discuss my medical history,” he said in a steely way that was also intended to head-off any questions about the accident itself. “I do discuss musical issues.”
Pausing, his glare softened and he added: “I’m doing fine as can be expected.”
If other people are still obsessed with the accident and his recovery, “That’s their problem. I’m accustomed to me.”
But he did acknowledge that he has missed performing--something that will continue to be rare in his life.
“Sure I miss it,” he said, matter of factly. “What can I say? But I miss walking more. Give me that back! Then we’ll talk about missing the stage. I miss every facet of that side of life.”
It’s the same old Teddy, say his friends.
“Before his accident he was . . . macho would be an understatement,” said Soul Train producer-host Don Cornelius, a longtime friend of the singer. “He really believed in himself and he still does.”
Cornelius said that Pendergrass never lost faith in himself after the crash but that he lost touch with what he does best musically.
“I don’t think he was ever down (emotionally), he said. “He was just feeling his way. Teddy’s a very precise man. The fact that he may not have been comfortable with things he was doing doesn’t mean he was down. It means he was not satisfied with what he was coming up with.”
Over the course of three post-accident albums (1984’s “Love Language,” 1985’s “Working It Back” and 1987’s “Joy”), he seemed to be groping for musical footing.
“If you listen to the first album he made after his recovery, it didn’t sound like Teddy Pendergrass,” Cornelius said. “You listen to the new album, it does. Not being a medical man or analyst, I don’t know what the difference is. But with the more recent stuff he’s started to do the same stuff he used to do, the ad-libs and phrasing and the same excitement he used to inject.”
For Pendergrass’ manager, Shep Gordon, the proof of how far back the singer has come came at the end of the “Arsenio” appearance. The house band started playing “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” one of the biggest hits Pendergrass had in the mid-'70s as the lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. As the show cut away for a commercial, Pendergrass held a look of astonishment. But when the show came back on, he was singing along with the band in his powerful, husky tones.
“I can’t believe he sang that,” said Gordon, who has managed Pendergrass since he left the Bluenotes in 1976, and whose roster also includes Alice Cooper, Luther Vandross and Michelle Shocked. “I’ve been trying to get him to sing it for 15 years. He never goes back to that stuff.”
The steps are tentative, but forceful.
“I’m not one to expect that everyone’s going to drop to their knees and bow to me just because I came back,” he said in his trailer dressing room before the show. “I’m very nervous--butterflies in my stomach and the whole bit.”
As far as his record company and management are concerned, Pendergrass is being promoted on musical, not physical terms.
There’s no direct reference to the accidents or to Pendergrass’ condition in his new Elektra publicity bio--only a vague mention of him “working it back” with the Live Aid appearance. And there was no mention of the subject at all on “Arsenio,” though Gordon said that no ground rules had been set for the interview and no great efforts were taken to avoid showing the chair as Pendergrass sang on the show.
“We don’t deal with (his condition),” said Gordon. “We really look at this as a new career.”