Teddy Pendergrass Passes Away

R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass dead at age 59.

“Teddy Pendergrass passed away this evening (January 13th) at 9:59 pm, after a long illness. His beloved family surrounded him. The world has lost one of it’s greatest voices and performers,” it was announced today by long time friend and former publicist, Lisa Barbaris. He is survived by his adoring mother Ida, devoted wife Joan, and his three children Theodore Pendergrass Jr, Tishia and LaDonna Hollerway, and four grandchildren Montaurius Drianen, Desaray Drane, Theodore Pendergrass III and Alana Nida Sky Pendergrass.

Born in Philadelphia on March 26, 1950 in Thomas Jefferson Hospital, Theodore Pendergrass was a native son who loved the brotherly city. A life-long resident, it was there where he played in the streets, preached in church, developed his artistic craft and made his fortune.

With a name that means “a gift from God,” the celebrated soul man started singing at the age of two when his mother Ida helped him stand on a chair inside their local storefront church.

Becoming a minister at the age of 10, young Theodore became well aware of the power of God as well as the power of love. While attending public school, he sang in the citywide McIntyre Elementary School Choir and in the All-City Stetson Junior High School Choir.

From his humble beginnings, the man that millions know today simply as Teddy rose from poverty to prominence and never looked back. A student at Thomas Edison High School, Pendergrass began his show-biz career at the age of 15, when the self-taught drummer began playing with a group called the Cadillacs.

In the late 1960s, when the group merged with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy was recruited as their drummer. Yet, after displaying his vocal prowess during rehearsals, it was only a matter of time before group leader Melvin slipped a microphone in his hand and Pendergrass soon became the premier voice of the newly launched Philadelphia International Records.

“His voice just roared over you,” producer Leon Huff said about the gifted performer whose rich baritone was simultaneously smooth and raw. With the release of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ self-titled debut in 1972, a bearded Teddy Pendergrass soon became the king of ballads when the group’s dynamic second single “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” became a number-one hit across the country.

Having studied the moves of Jackie Wilson and other performers at the Uptown Theater when he was just a boy, Teddy knew that one had to be an excellent showman and he never failed when it was time to take it to the stage. Always known for his sharp suits and polished shoes, the immaculate singer was soon one of the hottest talents in the country.

From 1972 to 1975, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes became one of the most popular groups in the world, releasing hit albums and singles that were always sung with soul, drama and sophistication by Pendergrass. Decades after their initial release, tracks like “The Love I Lost,” “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back),” “Bad Luck,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Wake up Everybody” are still classics that resonates joy, pain and liberation to old fans and new listeners.

Stepping into the solo spotlight in 1977 with his self-titled debut, Teddy Pendergrass put to rest any doubts that he could survive beyond the confines of the group. Selling more than a million copies, the album featured the smash singles “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” “You Can’t Hide From Yourself,” and “The More I Get the More I Want.”

It was also during this period, when Teddy Pendergrass started performing his world-famous “Ladies Only” tours that elevated his stature as one of the greatest R&B artists in history. With a gleaming smile and steam rising from his body, Teddy was a rhythmic sensation as thousands of fans showered him with gifts. From teddy bears (which many had nicknamed him) to other unmentionables, by the end of the night the stage was crowded with presents.

Along with his collaborators Gamble and Huff, McFadden and Whitehead and countless others, Pendergrass kept recording top-notch material. Last year Teddy told the Chicago Free Press, “There was the Motown family, and next there was Philadelphia International Records, the Gamble and Huff era. They took music into a whole other realm. They opened it up, broadened it. In the Motown era of the ’60s, those artists opened up the airwaves so that black music was played on the white airwaves and gold records were plentiful. Gamble and Huff broadened that even more and artists began to receive platinum records, which I did.

“I was the first black artist to receive five consecutive platinum records. We opened it up even more, so the ’70s was a place where black music went over the top and those guys are responsible for that.”

Teddy also received several Grammy nominations during 1977 and 1978, Billboard’s 1977 Pop Album New Artist Award and an American Music Award for best R&B performer of 1978 and awards from the NAACP. In 1978, Pendergrass won a Grammy for Favorite Male Artist -Soul/Rhythm & Blues. His next three albums Life is A Song Worth Singing (1978), Teddy (1978) and Teddy Live (1979) went gold or platinum.

Yet, as he was quick to tell Ebony magazine, “There’s more to me than my chest and my crotch.” With Teddy, in both his public and private life, there was a tenderness and strength in him that translated as a father, a husband, grandfather and businessperson.

As the 1970s ended, Pendergrass kept generating hits. TP, his fifth solo album, went platinum in the summer of 1980 off the singles “Turn Off the Lights,” “Come Go With Me,” “Shout and Scream,” “It’s You I Love,” and “Can’t We Try.” It’s Time for Love gave Pendergrass another gold album in summer 1981, which included the hit singles “Love TKO” and “I Can’t Live Without Your Love.”

When Teddy experienced his terrible car accident on March 18, 1982, eight days before his 32nd birthday, which paralyzed him for the rest of his life, again doubters tried to write him off. Defying expectations after a year of physical therapy, Teddy returned to the studio in 1984 and recorded his Elektra/Asylum debut Love Language, which went gold.

“My rehabilitation was totally due to the fact that I could still focus on continuing to make music,” Pendergrass told Wax Poetics magazine in 2008. Subsequent albums included Workin It Back (1985), Joy (1988, whose title track went to number one R&B for two weeks), Truly Blessed (1991) and Little More Magic (1993). “I got signs from God that he was going to let me continue,” Pendergrass said; as usual, he was right. Teddy’s manager Mr. Daniel Markus had this to say about his 20+-year client, “Teddy was a truly unique performer often imitated but never duplicated. His tenacity of getting the most he could out of life from a wheelchair was an inspiration to us all.”

The latter half of ’90s found Pendergrass recording for the Surefire/Wind Up label. In addition, Pendergrass co-authored with Patricia Romanowski his autobiography Truly Blessed in 1998. For the better part of the 2000s, Teddy was heavily involved in the maintaining his family and working with his charity the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1998 to aid people with spinal-cord injuries.

In the last year Teddy was also nurturing new endeavors including a musical documenting his life called I Am Who I Am. Written by Jackie Taylor, it premiered at Chicago’s famed Black Ensemble Theater. “Even before his accident, I always thought Teddy was the strongest person I knew,” producer Kenny Gamble.

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