This Gift of Life
According to Teddy Pendergrass, it was on his birthday, March 26th 1982, that he first began to grasp the gravity of what had happened, more than a week earlier: “the eight days between the accident and my birthday passed a dark, painful blur… I had no idea where I was, who was in the room with me, what time of day it was, or sometimes even who I was.” (215). Officially, Pendergrass was driving his 1981 Rolls Royce, late in the evening of March 18, 1982 with a companion Tenika Watson, when he lost control of his car. Pendergrass and Watson were trapped in the car for more than 45 minutes, with Pendergrass sustaining spinal chord injuries that would leave him paralyzed from below the waist and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. As Pendergrass reflects in Truly Blessed, “In one single stroke, my body had been changed forever in ways that I could not even imagine, much less bear to think about. In my mind, though, I was still the same man I was when I started the drive back to Philadelphia that spring night.” (218)
If Pendergrass could assert that he had faith that he was the same man, as he looked beyond his accident, the same could not necessarily be said about communal faith in the meanings behind that body. If Pendergrass’s hyper-masculine and sexually potent body previously served as a salve for the anxieties produced in the midst of Disco’s decidedly queering of popular music, Pendergrass’s broken body became the site for a new set of anxieties about black masculinity. The source of that angst was the revelation that Pendergrass’s companion that night, Tenika Watson, was transsexual. Well before there was remotely a politically-correct way to address transsexual and transgendered people in the public realm (as if that’s the case even now), Watson was immediately positioned as some sort of freak. As Watson told The Philadelphia Tribune two months after the accident—which she escaped with minor injuries—“I can’t get over how people treat you, how they turn everything around… what really made me upset was the fact that the papers made me seem as though I was some kind of animal or demon and that I was not a God fearing person.”
Tellingly, Pendergrass’s accident marks a shift in black masculine performances within R&B, best exemplified in the increasing popularity of Luther Vandross (who would later produce “You’re My Choice Tonight (Choose Me)” for Pendergrass’s first post-accident recording session), Prince, Rick James, El DeBarge and Michael Jackson who all trafficked in androgynous and asexual performances of masculinity that were the antithesis of Pendergrass’s version of the Black Macho. Additionally, the period saw the emergence of a generation of rank-and-file falsetto R&B acts like Lillo Thomas, Richard “Dimples” Field, O’Bryan, a young Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Paul Lawrence and Ready For the World. These shifts were in motion before Pendergrass’s accident, but his accident put a fine point on the matter. In the two-plus decades since Pendergrass’s accident, R&B has featured few singers who have been successful singing in Pendergrass’s lower register, save the late Gerald Levert, who sang in a register higher than Pendergrass.
With Pendergrass in need of money for mounting medical expenses and PIR struggling in the aftermath of a recession and facing the prospect that their most important asset was literally shelved, Pendergrass’s manager Shep Gordon, located tapes of unreleased recordings that formed the basis for This One’s For You (1982) and Heaven Only Knows (1983). Though John A. Jackson suggest in A House on Fire, that the two albums contained “material originally deemed too inferior to release,” some tracks give a clear indication of how Pendergrass was imagining the trajectory of his career. The eerily titled “This Gift of Life”, the lead single from This One’s For You, had been previously released as the B-side to “Can’t We Try”.
The title track to the album was a cover of the Barry Manilow hit, highlighting Pendergrass’s desire to interpret some of the pop standards of the time—a desire first articulated with his cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” during his 1979 concert tour. Pendergrass’s a capella performance at the end of “This One’s for You” gives the song a depth that Manilow could have never imagined. Heaven Only Knows even includes Pendergrass venturing into Country music, with the track “Crazy About Your Love”. The song seems an odd choice for Pendergrass, but it was likely recorded with Pendergrass keeping an eye on the fortunes of country music star Kenny Rogers (another noted baritone from the era), who was crossing over to the mainstream and Black audiences with Lionel Ritchie penned and produced tracks like “Lady” and “Through the Years”—tracks the helped Ritchie establish a mainstream presence when he went solo in 1982.
After a period of rehabilitation, Pendergrass was ready to return to the studio in 1984. With PIR no longer viable, Pendergrass signed with Elektra and released Love Language. Pendergrass’s voice was noticeably “lighter” and much of the production lacked the layers of lushness that was PIR’s signature, even in the years after the departure of its core musicians. The notable exception was Vandross’s production on “You’re My Choice Tonight (Choose Me)”, a song that was later featured in the film Choose Me (1985). Love Language was also notable for the pairing of Pendergrass with a 20-year-old unknown named Whitney Houston. Pendergrass even managed to make a music video for the lead single “In My Time”.
Pendergrass returned a year later with Workin’ It Back, which featured Womack and Womack’s “Lonely Color Blue”. It was during the summer of 1985 that Pendergrass made his symbolic return to the public, performing live for the first time as part of the Live Aid Concerts. The concerts were the product of Rock artist Bob Geldof’s effort to raise money for famine relief, with performances broadcast from London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia JFK Stadium. Pendergrass appeared alongside his long-time friends Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, performing a rendition of their classic song “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hands)”. As Pendergrass recalls, “with Nick and Val on either side of me, I began to weep.”
Pendergrass never looked back. The strength of his voice had largely returned when Joy was released in 1988. Pendergrass eventually earned his first Grammy Award, after three previous nominations, for his 1992 cover of the early Bee Gees classic “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart”, which was also covered in the early 1970s by Al Green (arguably, the definitive version). Pendergrass’s last recording was the live From Teddy with Love (2002). In the aftermath of his accident Pendergrass became an advocate for people with spinal cord injuries, citing the inspiration that Johnny Wilder, Jr. the late lead singer of Heatwave, provided after Wilder became a quadriplegic in the aftermath of an auto accident in 1979. It was under the auspicious of Pendergrass’s non-profit organization The Teddy Pendergrass Alliance that many gathered in Philadelphia in 2007 to fete him and his 25 years of living since the accident. In an interview with The Philadelphia Tribune Pendergrass admitted “This is not a cartoon. This is not a movie. This is real life. I want to know, after something happens like this, how do you have a productive life in the meantime? That’s what this is about. I’m asking people to help me help others like me.”
Teddy Pendergrass may have once sang “Life Is a Song Worth Singing”, but in the last 28 years of his life, he proved that his was a life worth living.