Teddy Pendergrass: Life Was a Song Worth Singing

by Mark Anthony Neal

21 Jan 2010


Hearing the soothing voice of the late Teddy Pendergrass singing lead on the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes classic, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, conjures the aura of possibility that marked the beginning of the 1970s in black music. The single, which went to number three on the pop charts in August of 1972 and eventually sold a million copies, was one of the first releases from the fledgling Philadelphia International Records (PIR). The story of PIR is legendary—their groundbreaking distribution deal with Columbia Records, then under the leadership of Clive Davis, would impact the trajectory of black music for some time. The label found it’s musical direction in the triumvirate known as the Mighty Three—Thom Bell, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff—and some of Philadelphia’s most accomplished studio musicians, who themselves recorded as MFSB. By the end of the decade of the 1970s though, it would be Pendergrass who would be the face of the brand, becoming the most bankable symbol of an imagined black masculinity during the era.

Born Theodore Pendergrass on March 26, 1950, the singer came of age in Philadelphia, during an era when Motown Records began to dominate the pop charts and the city was increasingly becoming renowned for its vocal harmony traditions—a sound that Thom Bell would later translate into success with groups like the Delfonics and the Stylistics. Ordained as a minister at age ten, Pendergrass found his vocal inspiration via the example of Marvin Junior, the lead singer of the Dells. As Pendergrass observes in his memoir Truly Blessed (1998), “Marvin Junior’s romantic, soulful voice was a gift from God. He could sing as smooth as honey one moment, then tear out your heart with an anguished plea.” (124) Pendergrass, in fact, got one of his first breaks as a performer, singing a rendition of the Dells’ classic “Stay in My Corner” in Atlantic City. Music historian John A. Jackson suggest that it was Pendergrass’s vocal affinity to Junior that led to Gamble and Huff’s desire to sign Harold Melvin and Blue Notes to their new label, after the duo were rebuffed in their efforts to wrest the Dells from Chess Records. Pendergrass became lead vocalist of the Blue Notes, after a short stint as their drummer that began in 1970.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were chitlin’ circuit staples, doing cabaret tunes when they signed with PIR in 1971. To the group’s surprise Gamble and Huff packaged them with bluesy and lush ballads, the first of which “I Miss You” was released in March of 1972. Though the track made inroads on the soul charts of the day, if was deemed “too black” for crossover radio. “Too black? What the hell did that mean?” Pendergrass recalled in his memoir, noting that artists like Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and the Temptations (behind Norman Whitfield’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) all topped the pop charts in that era. Despite the setback, “I Miss You” with Harold Melvin’s spoken word narrative about a love lost interspersed with Pendergrass’s soulful ad-libs on the full eight-minute version of the song, was a harbinger of PIR’s signature sound.

With the follow-ups “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “The Love I Lost”, the Blue Notes became one of PIR’s first major stars. “The Love I Lost” started out as a “Be For Real”-styled ballad, but was eventually recorded in an upbeat tempo that led many to claim it the first disco recording (Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” is a better claim). From 1972-1975, the Blue Notes found success with both ballads and dance tracks, with Pendergrass providing the majority of the leads, to the extent that by 1974, the group was known as Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Theodore Pendergrass. The group, like their label brethren the O’Jay’s, benefited from Kenneth Gamble’s interest in having strong patriarchal voices parlay his lyrics of Black pride and self-determination. Tracks like “Be for Real”—an extended musical dissertation on black social class divisions, camouflaged as an after-dinner argument between a couple—and “Wake Up Everybody” (see Alexander Weheliye’s brilliant analysis of the song’s intro in Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity) helped establish PIR as one of the artistic centers and a leading example of a developing mainstream discourse of blackness in the 1970s that was unapologetic in its nationalist sentiment and political critiques.

The Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck” (1975) is perhaps most emblematic of this moment, as Gamble, via Pendergrass’s lead offers a stinging critique of the Watergate era. Logging it at six-minutes plus, it is in the song’s closing minutes where Pendergrass literally screams the lyrics: “Guess what I saw? I saw the president of the United States / The man said he wasn’t gonna give it up / He did resign / But he still turned around and left all us poor folks behind / They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think that he can satisfy the human race.” As the song begins to fade, Pendergrass can be heard—“The only thing that I got that I can hold on to is my God, my god, Jesus be with me and give me good luck, good luck”—tapping into the religiosity that had been largely dormant in Pendergrass’s work with The Blue Notes. One of the strongest performances by Pendergrass during his tenure with the Blue Notes, “Bad Luck” and other tracks like it unwittingly linked Pendergrass’s voice to the political aspiration espoused in Gamble’s lyrics. This connection would serve Pendergrass well, when the inevitable tensions and disputes within the Blue Notes forced him to pursue a solo career in late 1975.

Teddy Is Ready

Not everyone was convinced that Teddy Pendergrass was bankable as a solo artist, given the struggle that some lead singers have had when they left the comforts of a highly established group. Diana Ross was perhaps the best known soul singer to have made such a move at the time that Pendergrass was considering his break from the Blue Notes, and up to that point Ross’s solo career had been a mixed bag. Pendergrass suggested that Kenny Gamble was particularly adamant about keeping the group together, fearing that audiences had built a bond with the group and not necessarily Pendergrass; audience often mistook Pendergrass for Melvin, since the latter was the group leader. One person who had faith in Pendergrass was his then manager Taaz Lang, who told The Philadelphia Tribune, shortly before the release of his solo debut Teddy Pendergrass (1977), that “Teddy has the talent of Stevie wonder, and the sex appeal of a Tom Jones or Johnnie Mathis.” Even if Gamble and Huff weren’t sure how such appeal would translate to audiences, they had no doubt about who Pendergrass was as an artist. As Pendergrass recalled, “It was easy to record and believe in the songs, because they wrote them for me. It’s impossible to describe, but when I sang their songs they immediately became my songs.” (158)

Aided by Columbia/CBS Records’ “Teddy Is Ready” campaign, where Pendergrass did radio station drop-ins and recorded phone messages for women fans in the various cities on his promotional tour, Teddy Pendergrass was released in the spring of 1977. The lead single “I Don’t Love You Anymore” rode the crest of the disco wave, though Pendergrass was quick to distance himself from the trend, telling The Amsterdam News, “disco music is just a craze and I’m about longevity.”  Though Gamble and Huff would continue to package Pendergrass with dance tracks like “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose”, and “Only You”, (which Eddie Murphy would later spoof in his standup routine) on later albums, he would largely establish himself on the strength of his sultry ballads. Tracks like “Somebody Told Me”, “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me”, and the brooding “And If I Had”, never helped Pendergrass garner the kind of crossover success that he experienced early on in his career with The Blue Notes, but as it turns out he didn’t need a crossover audience.

In a review of a Teddy Pendergrass concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in April of 1977, New York Times critic Robert Palmer admitted the singer’s obvious appeal and talent, but cautioned, “his on-going popularity will depend on the songs, productions and packaging the people at Philadelphia International come up with.” Solely thinking about Pendergrass’s music, Palmer—as astute a critic as there was in the late 1970s—was incapable of reading what Pendergrass’s cultural appeal was. Pendergrass’s quick ascent to becoming the most recognizable male soul singer of the 1970s, went against prevailing logics. The disco craze damaged the careers of many a soul singer in the late 1970s, including established acts like Isaac Hayes and Bobby Womack, who both tried unsuccessfully to get in on the developing scene (it took years for both to recover), yet Pendergrass managed to raise the bar in this environment.

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