Teddy Pendergrass had been the striking lead voice of Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes for more than five years when he released his debut solo recording Teddy Pendergrass in the spring of 1977. Though the Blue Notes bore the name of the late Harold Melvin it was Pendergrass’s voice that dominated their classic recordings such as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, “Wake Up Everybody”, and the strident “Bad Luck”. Joining the group initially as a drummer, Pendergrass’s signature tenor, initially modeled after the great, great Marvin Junior of the “Mighty, Mighty” Dells, helped elevate the Blue Notes as one of the definitive examples of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s “Philly Soul”.
With the release of his solo recording in 1977, Pendergrass would join the ranks of other session drummers turned “Soul Man” — a group that includes Marvin Gaye and Jeffrey Osborne — and emerge as the dominant male R&B/Soul singer of the late 1970s and early 1980s. With Isaac Hayes well beyond his creative peak of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Al Green in the throes of a “hot grit” inspired conversion, Barry White becoming a caricature of himself and Marvin Gaye in exile on the run from the IRS and alimony, Pendergrass’s solo career was timely. The new collection Greatest Slow Jams collects some of Pendergrass’s definitive ballads from the period of 1977-1982, a period that marked his artistic peak and a period that only came to a close because of a tragic car accident in 1982 that left him paralyzed.
The collection opens with three tracks from his debut release including the spiritual “Somebody Told Me”, which was co-written by McFadden and Whitehead, who would themselves record one of the most inspirational songs of the era in “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”. The beautifully obscure “And If I Had” is also collected from Pendergrass’s debut. The song which was featured in the 1985 film Choose Me — Pendergrass also sang the title track to the film’s soundtrack in what amounted to a comeback after his accident — is one of Pendergrass’s most stirring performances, perhaps only matched by his lead vocals on the Blue Notes’ “Be For Real” and “Can’t We Try” from TP (1980), the latter of which is also collected on Greatest Slow Jams.
The collection of course includes classic recordings from the era when Pendergrass was known as “Teddy Pender the Female Bender”. “Close the Door” which is one of Pendergrass’s best known performances is taken from his breakout second release Life Is a Song Without Singing (1978) as is the touching “It Don’t Hurt Now”. Womack and Womack (Linda the daughter of Sam Cooke with husband Cecil, the brother of Bobby) contributed “Love TKO” for the 1980 release TP, a recording the proved that Pendergrass would survive the “disco” era without crashing and burning like some of his peers, most notably Bobby Womack, Barry White and Bill Withers. “Love TKO” served as the inspiration for a darkly comic moment in the film Sugar Hill where actor Michael Wright (Eddie “how does it feel to be me?” Cain, Jr.), sang the song’s opening verse while shooting a member of a rival drug gang. The Gamble and Huff penned classic “Turn Off the Lights” may be the most requested “Quiet Storm” recording from that era, Heatwave’s “Always and Forever” notwithstanding. The song along with “Come Go With Me”, both from Teddy (1979), represent some of the best examples of Gamble and Huff’s ability to write and produce material that best reflected the talents and sensibilities of their artists. It is clear that Pendergrass was made to sing their songs as Gamble and Huff were meant to write them for him.
Greatest Slow Jams also includes some lesser known gems like the exquisite “You’re My Latest, Greatest, Inspiration” from It’s Time for Love (1981) and the title track from the same recording. The collection is rounded out with “Now Tell that You Love Me” which initially appeared on the recording This One’s for You (1982), a collection of new and unreleased material recorded before Pendergrass’s tragic accident. Though Pendergrass continues to record nearly two decades after his accident — he dramatically returned to the stage in a wheelchair performing with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson during Live Aid in 1985 — this new collection could arguably be titled “the best of”. The legacy of Pendergrass voice could be heard in the early work of Christopher Williams and as fellow PopMatters critic Maurice Bottomley notes, contemporarily in the music of Jaheim.