The consummate African American sex symbol of the 1970s music scene, Teddy Pendergrass gained unparalleled adulation from female fans for his suggestive crooning and his women-only concerts at which teddy bears were passed out to audience members. Prior to his solo career, he had already been in the spotlight for many years as the lead vocalist of one of the most lyrical and distinctive of the Philadelphia soul groups, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. In 1982, Pendergrass was in an automobile accident that left him a paraplegic. However, he was able to successfully resume his career. He formally retired from music in 2006.
Pendergrass was born in Philadelphia on March 26, 1950. His mother named him Theodore, which means "gift from God," because she had suffered six previous miscarriages. His father Jesse, who had left the family and moved in with another woman, was murdered when Pendergrass was 12. As a young man, Pendergrass was ordained as a minister and he followed a religious lifestyle. His first exposure to secular music occurred in his early teens when his mother, who worked at a Philadelphia supper club, let him play some of the club's musical instruments. Pendergrass soon taught himself to play several instruments and he joined several local musical groups in Philadelphia.
Blue Notes Drummer and Vocalist
In 1969, Pendergrass received his first big break when he signed on as the drummer for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a Philadelphia soul group. When the Blue Notes' lead vocalist left the group the following year, Pendergrass replaced him and brought a new level of fame to the group. The Philadelphia soul sound pioneered by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff during the 1970s combined a down-to-earth intensity with a more lyrical, mellow side. Pendergrass's baritone voice was vigorous, yet smooth, and was well-suited to the Philadelphia soul sound. Blue Notes hits such as "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and "The Love I Lost" made Pendergrass a singing sensation and helped to launch his solo career.
Pendergrass released his debut solo album, Teddy Pendergrass, in 1977. Two singles from the album, "I Don't Love You Any More" and the ballad "The Whole Town's Laughing at Me," were modest hits. However, it was only when Pendergrass began to be marketed as a sex symbol that his career really took off. When he performed in concert, Pendergrass would launch into spectacular vocal outbursts that delighted throngs of adoring female fans. Many of these fans threw underwear on stage and reveled in his tank-top attire and seductive stage routines. Concerts were often billed as "Ladies Only" affairs and, in one notorious incident, one woman shot another after a struggle over Pendergrass's sweat-soaked head scarf.
Permanently Paralyzed by Crash
For a time, Pendergrass was arguably the most popular male star in R&B music. However, his life would be changed forever on the night of March 18, 1982, when the brakes on his Rolls-Royce failed, causing the car to hit a metal guardrail, cross into oncoming traffic, and ram into a tree. Pendergrass suffered a broken neck, a crushed spinal cord, and damage to vital nerves. He was unconscious for eight days and, when he regained consciousness, he realized that he was paralyzed below the waist and would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Following his accident, Pendergrass contemplated suicide. In his 1998 autobiography, Truly Blessed, he remarked that he had once asked his wife to give him an overdose of sleeping pills. Pendergrass suffered severe depression and insomnia for years after the accident, but his road to recovery began when he gingerly tried out his voice by singing along with a coffee commercial on television. Although he had been warned that he might never sing again, Pendergrass found that his voice was still in working condition. "Nothing ever sounded as sweet to my ears as my version of that silly damn jingle," he wrote in Truly Blessed. Pendergrass sought help from a quadriplegic therapist, who helped him exorcize thoughts of suicide through the staging of a mock funeral.
In addition to his disability, Pendergrass had to defend himself against rumors that his accident had been caused by excessive alcohol and drug use. Although Philadelphia police cited Pendergrass for reckless driving, they found no evidence that alcohol or drugs had contributed to the crash. Another rumor circulated that Pendergrass's passenger at the time of the accident, Tenika Watson, was actually a transsexual nightclub entertainer. Pendergrass denied any involvement with Watson, stating that he had simply offered a late-night ride to a woman with whom he had been casually acquainted.
Returned to Recording and Performing
His voice weakened by the crash but imbued with new emotional depth, Pendergrass slowly returned to work. In 1984, he released his first album since the accident. The album, Love Language, thrilled and inspired his many fans, and was certified platinum for sales of one million copies. Pendergrass made a live appearance at the Live Aid charity concert in 1985 and his 1988 album, Joy, put him back atop the R&B charts. Ron Wynn, in his review of Joy for the All-Music Guide, observed that Pendergrass "sang in a slower, somber yet appealing way quite different from the swaggering, openly sexual, macho posturing of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was a weary but not beaten Pendergrass, whose manner and delivery underscored the resilient theme in Joy's lyrics."
With the constant support of his wife and his mother, Pendergrass has far exceeded the expectations of his doctors, who had predicted that Pendergrass would live only ten years after the accident. He kept up a moderate schedule of recording and touring, releasing the albums Truly Blessed (1991), You & I (1997), and This Christmas, I'd Rather Have Love (1998), and touring with the traveling company of the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God in 1996. He founded the Pendergrass Institute for Music and Performing Arts to assist aspiring performers, and also supported causes that championed the rights of the disabled.
Though Pendergrass did perform in memory of the 25th anniversary of the car accident he survived, he officially retired from performing and recording music in 2006. Several collections were released between his final studio recording in 1998 and his death in 2010.
In mid-2009, Pendergrass underwent surgery for colon cancer. The surgery was successful, but during recovery, he suffered from many respiratory complications. Seven months after the procedure, on January 13, 2010, Pendergrass passed away. He was 59 years old.
Born Theodore Pendergrass on March 26, 1950, in Philadelphia, PA; married Karen Still, in June of 1987; children: Theodore Jr., Tamon, Tisha Lazette, and LaDonna. Addresses: Addresses: Agent--Dream Street Management, 1460 Fourth St., Suite 205, Santa Monica, CA 90401.
R&B vocalist. Joined Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes as drummer, 1968; lead vocalist for the group, 1970-77, featured on major Blue Notes recordings such as "If You Don't Know Me By Now"; solo performer, 1977-; suffered permanent paralysis in auto crash, 1982; returned to recording and performing, mid-1980s; released You & I, 1997; released This Christmas, I'd Rather Have Love, 1998; wrote autobiography with Patricia Romanowski, Truly Blessed, 1998; active in disabled-welfare organizations.
Received numerous civic awards; Image Award, NAACP, 1973 and 1980.
- Life Is a Song Worth Singing, Philadelphia International, 1978.
- Teddy, Philadelphia International, 1979.
- T. P., Philadelphia International, 1980.
- Live Coast to Coast, Philadelphia International, 1980.
- It's Time for Teddy, Philadelphia International, 1981.
- Teddy Pendergrass, Philadelphia International, 1982.
- This One's for You, Philadelphia International, 1982.
- Heaven Only Knows, Philadelphia International, 1983.
- Greatest Hits, Philadelphia International, 1984.
- Love Language, Asylum, 1984.
- Workin' It Back, Asylum, 1985.
- Joy, Asylum, 1988.
- Truly Blessed, Elektra, 1991.
- You & I, Elektra, 1997.
- This Christmas, I'd Rather Have Love, Elektra, 1998.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 3, Gale, 1990.
Erlewine, Michael, et al, eds., The All Music Guide to Rock, Miller-Freeman, 1998.
Graff, Gary, Josh Freedom du Lac, and Jim McFarlin, MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.
Pendergrass, Teddy, with Patricia Romanowski, Truly Blessed, Putnam's, 1998.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Billboard, October 31, 1998, p. 23.
Entertainment Weekly, March 18, 1994, p. 112.
Jet, November 9, 1998, p. 56; April 5, 1999, p. 48.
"Teddy Pendergrass, R&B Soul Singer, Dies at 59," the New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/arts/music/15pendergrass.html?pagewanted=all (December 14, 2011).