By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
I was watching a documentary on SHOWTIME, and even though it has been out a while, it is still available through that and other streaming sites. “Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me” looks at the career of the multi-platinum singer who dominated in the 70s and early 80s while sometimes just wearing a white undershirt and white slacks—it didn’t matter, because women loved him, and many showed that love by throwing their undergarments on stage.
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes is the group that was churning out hit after hit in the 70s, but the namesake wasn’t the one behind most of the more popular songs. It was
Pendergrass. He was about 20 years old in 1969 when he was recruited to play drums but eventually became the lead singer, and the group had great success with songs like “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “The Love I lost” and “Wake Up Everybody.” In 1975, Pendergrass struck out on his own and was known to have “for women only” concerts, while he slayed them with his “bedroom ballads.”
He enjoyed non-stop success until early 1982, when he was involved in a near fatal, single-car auto accident, while driving his distinctive green Rolls Royce along Philly’s Lincoln Drive. His car veered off course and hit a tree, in an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down, and his singing career and status as the sexy, sultry R&B singer at risk.
The documentary reveals that Pendergrass wasn’t in the best state of mind just thinking that he may not be able to sing. However, a doctor aggressively worked with him and, when the singer used a belt-like device around his waist that helped him lift his arms, he was able to get the lungs, diaphragm and voice working all together to assist in his delivery.
After almost a year of physical therapy and mental health counseling, in 1984, Pendergrass released “Love Language” on the Elektra/Asylum label, an album that went on to turn gold in the spring of that year and signaled an end to his association with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s (along with Thom Bell) Philadelphia International Records (PIR).
Now, I will briefly address the accident, since the community was all up in arms when it was revealed that the passenger in the car was a transgender woman named Tenika Watson. The public assumed that Pendergrass was soliciting sexual favors while taking the woman home. Watson says in the documentary that she had medically transitioned into a female years before and that there was nothing going on between the couple and that Pendergrass was unable to successfully apply the brakes before he crashed.
The documentary speaks of a “Black Mafia,” which reportedly was trying to coerce Pendergrass into signing with other labels. It talks about the huge successes of PIR, and the “Philly Sound,” not only with Pendergrass and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, but with MFSB, Billy Paul, the O’Jays, Patti LaBelle and Lou Rawls.
There is talk of conspiracies around people tampering with Pendergrass’ vehicles, suspected payola to radio stations to play his music and, sadly, the unsolved brutal murder of his manager and then-girlfriend Taz Lang.
Between 1971 and the early 1980s, the label received over 170 gold and platinum records—and reportedly went mostly defunct in 1987 and finally shut down in 2001. On a press junket in the early 2000s hosted by the Philadelphia Tourism Bureau, our group was able to visit the studio where on one album alone, Pendergrass recorded “Turn Off The Lights,” “Do Me” and “Come Go With Me.”
A Twitter user “Algierslady” from New Orleans said: “I was living in Washington, D.C., and it was 1980. Teddy was appearing at a store on 11th and F Streets, NW, selling his Teddy jeans. There were so many women that could not get in and they were spilling into the streets.” She recounts that the store window had been broken and that Pendergrass had to be hurried out the back door for safety. She added: “He was tall, and once I saw him walking down the street dressed in white from his 10-gallon hat down to his white shoes. Women were turning and bumping into each other. He just smiled and kept walking.” She said that at a concert that she attended in Maryland before his accident, he said he needed someone to go home with. “I yelled —with the rest of the women—ME!!”
When Pendergrass died in 2010, due to respiratory failure, the man who was once referred to as the “Black Elvis” reportedly didn’t have much money nor property.
But he did have a rich legacy—one which his second wife, Joan, has been securing with the Teddy and Joan Pendergrass Foundation, a nonprofit created in 2015 that encourages and assists individuals with spinal cord injuries (SCI), while helping them achieve maximum potential in education, employment, and overall independence, professionally and personally. Search [https://tinyurl.com/fkpxcsbp] for a look at a trailer from the documentary. Search [https://tinyurl.com/vz6rhxz9] for information about the Foundation.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information, search [https://tinyurl.com/55hxcw4v] or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.