I don’t know about where you live if you live in a city in the U.S.A., but here in Hootyville I didn’t hear any radio stations doing a tribute to Teddy Pendergrass when word came that he passed away on January 13th. That is damn shame, but what you get when you have cold, inflexible corporations running the radio of the day.
The first time I heard Teddy Pendergrass was back when the late, great radio programmer Frankie Crocker played a record by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes called “I Miss You” on the first Black FM music station in New York City, WLIB-FM in 1972. They would play the whole eight minute version where the AM stations would only play “part 1” and the Teddy’ Bear’s voice was the most powerful on this then new group; it grabbed you! My favorite on that first album on Philadelphia International Records however, was (and still is) “Yesterday I Had The Blues”. That was the first time that Teddy really brought it emotionally, and shined distinctively on a song with his “cryin'” and pleading style. The other hit from the album was “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (whose intrumental track sounds very similar to The Eagle’s “Take It To The Limit, by the way), and again Teddy carried the tune and painted the lyrical picture.
Around 1973 WLIB FM became WBLS FM, and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes second album, “Black & Blue” hit the streets preceeded by the single “The Love I Lost, part 1”. Back then many “soul” records had a “part one” and the flip side of the 45rpm record would be “part 2” – a trend started by James Brown and King Records I think. What was hip about that was that it created anticipation for the album (lp or long-playing 331/3) to come out so that you could hear the whole song without the interruption of having to physically turn the record over. I remember this especially benefiting this group on this particular song and once again Teddy Pendergrass was given more of a lead role and he ran with it. It also was the beginning of the “Disco” era, so when I as a “baby DJ” gleaned this, I would play it to fill the dance floor because of its really moving beat. The cover features the group clad in caberet-style tuxedo, and Teddy still tugging at your heart strings as he breaks it down. Another favorite on that album is the slow jam, “Concentrate On Me”, where in their classic Gamble & Huff style, the formula was for Teddy to tell the story in-between magnificent chorouses by the rest of the group. I remember vintage radio personalities of the day like Crocker saying that Teddy was “taking you to church on that one…” Groups like these helped to form my notions about romance and unrequited love, and I still fall back on them during times of heartbreak (like in recent months).
1975 saw the group produce two great albums, “To Be True” and “Wake Up Everybody”. It also marked the first signs of a restless Teddy Bear; as I recall, he threatened to leave unless he received top billing, and so in a compromise of sorts they became Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass. Teddy knew he made the sound of the group sell.
“To be True” spawned at least three hits: “Where Are All My Friends”,” To Be True”, and the biggest, most dancable one, “Bad Luck”. I also loved “Nobody Could Ever Take Your Place” with its long MFSB-style dancable instrumental- into-the-fade. The group also introduced a female to the sound for the first time in Sharon Paige who many of my classmates loved on the jazzy “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon”. Word was behind the scenes that she was included to vex Teddy a bit within his power-play. Lightning struck twice when later that year the second album dropped and Teddy led the way on a spirited cover of the Thelma Houston disco classic “Don’t Leave me This Way”. My personal fave on “Wake Up” is his work on “Tell The World How I Feel About’Cha Baby”, and the title track scored by touching a nerve within us all in a timeless way.
The next vinyl in my Teddy library, is simply entitled “Teddy Pendergrass” or “the white scarf album” as my mentor, the late Sonny Taylor called it. As the title suggests, he was now a solo act after a final dispute with Harold Melvin, who replaced him with someone I remember only as “Ebo” as introduced at Madison Square Garden’s old “Felt Forum” (now the Paramount). He was still written by Gamble and Huff, and the material and tempos were as good as every for “Pender-bender” which was another of the nicknames we gave him. It featured the hit “You Can’t Hide From Yourself”, the introspective “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” and a serious smash in “I Don’t Love You Anymore” among others. My notes scribbled on the back of the jacket give this album five stars back in March of 1977. Personal fave here: “The More I Get, The More I Want” ( he’d sing “ah-yeah” between verses). As I listen to the music Teddy left behind, it becomes apparent that he made the right moves with his career, and his timing was excellent for a good while.
There are two vinyls that I was never able to add to my collection, “T.P” and “Life Is A Song Worth Singing”. They were released sometime between 1977 and 1980 and included two of my faaavorite numbers, “Love TKO” and “Close The Door”. “TKO” was so hot that even with the record company connections of a young DJ, I could not secure anything but a couple of 45rpms of it until Teddy’s “Greatest Hits” came out in 1984.
Two years later, in 1979 (a great year for Disco and Soul music) his next solo album, “Teddy” or the red album was clearly a sexier effort. “Come Go With Me” and the powerful “Turn Off The Lights” (“I’ve something in my MIND, something I’ve been wanting to do it all the TIME! Yeah…Yes!..”) led it off and were massive romantic hits which still sound sensual today. Later that same year “Teddy Live! Coast To Coast” , a double vinyl album hit just in time for Christmas on December 12th. If it had come out today, it definitly would have included a video, but in those days a full length poster of Pendergrass did just fine. During those performances, one In Philadelphia and the others in Los Angeles, he included a medly of his hits with The Blue Notes and by now the women in the audience were throwing articles of their underwear at him in adoration.
Little did he or we know that tradegy would strike and almost silence Teddy three years later when he had a Roy Campanella-style auto accident one night that left him paralysed from the waste down. There were several scandalous rumors surrounding that event, which I’ll not go into here.
Teddy Pendergrass rose like the Pheonix though; the next vinyl in my collection, “This One’s For You” (1982) was a homage to his fans after he pulled through the medical procedures that followed his accident. Maybe the first track on there says it best about how he felt at the time, ” I Can’t Win For Losing”.
By 1984 Teddy had signed with Elektra/Asylum Records and subsquently sang the next three and final of my vinyls for that record company. The three now only photographed him from the chest-up; no more cowboy hats and suggestive gyration photos. “Love Language” featured the sexy, “You’re My Choice Tonight” which I played on New York City radio along with more introspective selections such as “In My Time”. 1985’s “Workin’ It Back” had eight five-star songs on it, including “Let Me Be Closer”, co-written by the legendary Linda Creed, and “Love Emergency”, co written by Womack & Womack, who also penned the fabulous “Love TKO”. For the first time, Teddy’s star began to fade around this point, in my opinion.
The last and most recent vinyl in my Teddy Bear den is 1988’s spirited “Joy” , which was produced by Teddy for Teddy Bear Productions, Inc. (see, he listened to us!) The first two songs are the stalwarts here as well: the title track and one of the best songs he ever sang after the crash, “2 A.M” which decribes the end of a party and alludes to taking her home and to a more intimate level. The accident humbled Pendergrass as it probably would any of us, and his subsequent work showed it even though his voice never lost all of it’s sex appeal nor he the ability to orally interpret lyrics to evoke real feelings.
I just heard the end notes of Teddy fading off from a tribute to Teddy Pendergrass on the radio tonight, two nights later – on the PBS station! Bigg Upps to them and their warm teddy-bear selves.