Pendergrass succeeded in part because of an emerging black consumer base
Perhaps more powerfully, Pendergrass represented an idealized black masculinity in the late 1970s. Though his work with the Blue Notes had political connotations, Pendergrass’s popularity as a solo artist lie in his performance of a masculinity that was virile and potent and tailor-made for a cultural discourse that had moved beyond the struggles for civil rights and fixated on establishing acceptable images of black masculinity within an integrated society. Though such images existed via the form of mythical cinematic figures like Superfly (Ron O’Neal) and Shaft (Richard Roundtree), Pendergrass made such performances real and accessible, in an era partially defined by cartoonish performances of black masculinity in popular culture, like Antonio Fargas’s “Huggy Bear” and Jimmie Walker’s “J.J. Evans”. What made Pendergrass’s performance of black masculinity palpable was, in part, the physical limits of his vocal instrument. Never technically strong as a singer—he never possessed the vocal dexterity of his peers Marvin Gaye or Al Green—there was an earnestness in Pendergrass’s baritone that helped soften a hypermasculinity that was off the charts. Still in his late 20s when he became an icon, Pendergrass’s full beard and sonorous voice evoked a man twice his age.
Pendergrass was also of a generation of black male performers, who were the first, who could publically express a distinct sexual identity, with examples ranging from the aforementioned Richard Roundtree, to Marvin Gaye and even Sylvester. With the sexual revolution in full swing, sex became one of Pendergrass’s calling cards. As such Pendergrass’s rise coincides with communal anxieties produced in response to Al Green’s rejection of the very secular sexuality that helped establish the popularity of the male soul singer, dating back to Sam Cooke’s emergence in the 1950s. If Al Green was no longer invested in the hyper-sexualized black masculinity that he and an aging Marvin Gaye (who later saw Pendergrass as a rival) helped cultivate in the 1970s, Pendergrass was a suitable and unequivocally masculine (by the standards of the era) replacement. Indeed, Pendergrass was clearly cognizant of the stakes, rebuffing Amsterdam News reporter Marie Moore in a 1977 interview when she insinuated that Pendergrass had “something against women” in response to his suggestion that he didn’t want women to “get next to him”. (“Now you are implying I’m a faggot because I said that. I said that because I’m selective.”).
Though Pendergrass was often ambivalent about his sex-symbol status, telling Moore in a 1978 interview that “it’s something that sort of happened. I don’t deal with that crazy shit, I’m not like that… I guess it was women themselves that invented that image of me,” his record company understood this dynamic as they went forward with Pendergrass’s career, beginning with “Close the Door”, the lead single from Pendergrass’s second release Life is a Song Worth Singing (1978). When asked by The Amsterdam News to describe “Close the Door”, Pendergrass simply replied “panty wetter”, an apt description for many of the ballads on Life is a Song Worth Singing (the title track, a remake of Thom Bell produced Johnny Mathis recording from 1973) and his follow-up Teddy (1979) including “It Don’t Hurt Now”, “Come on and Go with Me”, and “Turn Out the Lights”.
With the release of the multiplatinum Teddy (1979) and Live Coast to Coast (1979) and Pendergrass’ well publicized “women only” concerts, where attendees were given chocolate teddy-bear shaped lollipops (“so that she’ll have something to lick” as quoted in The Amsterdam News), Pendergrass’s musical image was quickly degenerating into the type caricature befitting the 1970s—the type of caricature of black male singers that befell figures like Barry White and Isaac Hayes (creating the context, for example, for South Park’s “Chef” or White’s appearances on Ally McBeal). Pendergrass seized upon the opportunity presented by the deterioration of Gamble and Huff’s working relationship to work with new producers (Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs) and writers, and to begin writing some of his own songs. As John A. Jackson writes in A House on Fire: the Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul (2004), “The production assignments for the album called TP hinted at significant internal problems at Philadelphia International.”(233) To his credit Pendergrass’s albums, TP (1980) and It’s Time for Love (1981) find the singer at the peak of his artistic powers.
“Can’t We Try”, the lead single from TP was penned by former Motown staffer Ron Miller (see Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning”) and Pendergrass handled the production himself. One of the singer’s most exquisite performances, the song’s popularity was boosted by its inclusion on the soundtrack for the film Roadie (1980), which starred Meatloaf. TP also featured Pendergrass’s first collaborations with the songwriting and production team of Womack and Womack (Curtis and Linda Womack) on the track “Love T.K.O.” and Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson (“Is It Still Good To You”). Additionally TP features Pendergrass’s pairing with touring partner Stephanie Mills on a cover of Peobo Bryson’s “Feel the Fire”. Mills recorded the track on her breakthrough album Whatcha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ (1979) and according to Pendergrass, “Stephanie and I were rehearsing for a show when I heard her sing ‘Feel the Fire’... Singing the song to myself as I listened to her belt it out during her soundcheck, I couldn’t help wondering how we would sound performing it as a duet.” (198) The song resonated with audiences—“our duets were so hot that, as with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, folks who didn’t know us assumed our passion was more than an act,” Pendergrass confided—and the duo recorded “Two Hearts” year later.
If TP gave indication of Pendergrass pursuing nuance in his recordings, It’s Time for Love (1981) was confirmation of that fact. The introspective lead single, “I Can’t Live Without Your Love” and follow-up “You’re My Latest, Greatest Inspiration” (with Womack and Womack on board) gives the strongest indication of the direction that Pendergrass wanted to pursue going forward. Pendergrass admits in his memoir that “with my fifth studio album… the Teddy Bear was doing more purrin’ than roarin’.” (211) Critics also noted the shift, as Stephen Holden observed in The New York Times: “It was an open question as to whether Mr. Pendergrass could smooth out the roughest edges and develop a ballad style that was anywhere as potent as his ferocious shouting style… the strongest cuts on last year’s TP were all ballads that showed Mr. Pendergrass developing long narrative laments with unprecedented subtlety and emotional conviction.”
Pendergrass supported It’s Time for Love with a tour of England, with Mills, and was primed for the kind of crossover success that had eluded him during his solo career, when a winding road outside of Philadelphia placed his life, his career and his embodiment of an imagined black masculinity in jeopardy.