An appreciation: Teddy Pendergrass, R&B’s smooth, sensual stylist
Perhaps it’s fitting that music critics often characterized the fervid baritone of soul music icon Teddy Pendergrass, who died from colon cancer on Wednesday at 59, as having the metaphoric power of an earthquake -- rumbling, potent, vital.
Two days ago, a catastrophic earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti, leaving in its wake incomprehensible tragedy mingled with everyday stories of heroic acts of courage. Pendergrass, whose mainstream commercial career declined in the aftermath of a 1982 spinal cord injury resulting from an automobile accident, spent the last two decades living out his own version of resilience in the face of tragedy.
His life was a whirlwind of philanthropic initiatives, passionate promotion of rhythm and blues and determined refusal to let paralysis stop him from performing and recording.
Raised on the rough-and-tumble north Philadelphia streets of the 1950s, Pendergrass was influenced early on by gospel heavyweights such as Sam Cooke, Clara Ward and Shirley Caesar. He preached the holy word before he hit puberty; his predilection for rhythm earned him cash as a teen drummer. Then, at the tail end of the 1960s, Teddy emerged as the stellar frontman for the stellar soul outfit Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes even though his name wasn’t in the title.
What brought him instant fame was that tempestuous baritone, cut from swatches of the same textured cloth as Otis Redding’s full-throttle instrument. Alongside Russell Thompkins of the Stylistics and Eddie Levert of the O’Jays, Pendergrass stands as the greatest interpreter of the ‘70s “Philly Soul” songs created by the writing-production team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.
His churchy, swaggering sound -- a voice that reportedly made Marvin Gaye jealous -- could easily careen over swirling strings, chipper horns and disco beats on nightclub classics such as “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Bad Luck.” It could just as easily settle into restraint and sensitivity on ballads like “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and “I Miss You.”
What’s more, it provided moral authority on social empowerment tunes like “Wake Up Everybody” and on self-motivation ballads like “Life Is a Song Worth Singing.” 1980’s nakedly romantic “Is it Still Good to Ya,” penned by Ashford & Simpson, remains his most dramatic vocal performance.
With his bearded, gruff machismo, Pendergrass epitomized the 1970s suave black playboy, a Hugh Hefner of sorts. Swooning women would dub him “Teddy Bear,” and what was implied was that he was both a respectable gentleman with the lights on and a respectable freak with the lights off.
When his solo career officially launched in 1977, Pendergrass traded in the Blue Notes’ pageant-like suits for open button butterfly-collar shirts, gold medallions and clingy pants. His live shows, which staged over-the-top romantic set pieces exclusively for the ladies, sometimes morphed dangerously into campy boudoir theater.
Some critics found his trademark mix of showmanship and bombastic vocals to be overblown and crass. Others, in the industry and beyond, held up Pendergrass’ authoritative example of black masculinity to terrorize more “feminine” singers like Luther Vandross and Sylvester. But the midnight ladies-only shows Pendergrass came to pioneer in the 1970s also helped black female audiences emerge as a significant musical market, one that would feature prominently into the 1980s and beyond.
After his car accident, Pendergrass was quickly eclipsed by the punkier sounds of Rick James and Prince, who brought to the surface much of what had been implicit in Pendergrass’ eroticism.
Still, it’s worth remembering all that he brought to pop music. He’s an essential link to the ‘80s light pop soul of artists such as Whitney Houston and Vandross, both of whom he worked with after his accident. And even more crucially, he’s the link to the under-researched ‘80s U.K. soul revival scene helmed by artists such as Simply Red, who appreciatively covered his bedroom slow jams.
I served on the board of the R&B Foundation with Mr. Pendergrass, although I did not know him personally, and I wrote about him once for Vibe, in a short comparison column to 1990s neo-soul revivalist Jaheim. For me, Mr. P was the king of mutuality and respect in romantic relationships, a quality captured perfectly in the lyrics to one of his biggest hits: “It’s so good, so good lovin’ somebody when somebody loves you back.”
The lights may be turned off Teddy, and the door may be closed, but you’re still with us.
Jason King is director of the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University and the author of “Michael Jackson Treasures.”