“Remembering the Teddy Bear”
“Wake up everybody no more sleepin in bed
No more backward thinkin time for thinkin ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be so
there is so much hatred war an’ poverty
Wake up all the teachers time to teach a new way
Maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say
Cause they’re the ones who’s coming up and the world is in their hands
when you teach the children teach em the very best you can”
In the last couple of weeks, America has been focusing on the catastrophic tragedy in Haiti, Obama’s first State of the Union Address, the loss of Senator Kennedy’s seat to the GOP, and the re-appointment of the Fed Chair. At the time I had written my column last week, the music world had lost one of the most important Soul singers in the last 40 years. Theodore DeReese “Teddy” Pendergrass made his transition on January 13th, 2010 due to complications from colon cancer surgery he had undergone from last year. “Teddy Bear,” as he was affectionately known by women all over the world, was the undisputed king of the “bedroom” and “dance floor” classics. He had a raspy baritone style similar to earlier soul vocalists like Wilson Pickett, Marvin Junior of The Dells, and Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. Pendergrass was a staple for the bedroom with classics like “Turn Off The Lights,” “Close the Door,” “I Miss You,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Love T.K.O” and other songs too endless to mention in this column.
Teddy Pendergrass was born on March 26th, 1950 in Kingstree, South Carolina to Jesse and Ida Pendergrass. His father left while he was a little boy and was murdered in 1962. Ida moved the family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where Teddy attended Thomas Edison High School for Boys and sang with the Edison Mastersingers. Determined to let her child not succumb to the streets of Philly, she would often take Teddy to the Uptown Theater; where she was a cook. There, he was exposed to some of the greatest R & B and soul acts of the day. From Jackie Wilson to James Brown, the youngster knew music was in his blood. It was also the church where Teddy became an ordained youth minister and played drums.
He quit high school while in the 11th grade and decided to pursue music full-time. While Teddy was drummer for The Cadillacs, the group eventually became Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. The Blue Notes were like the equivalent of Billy Ward & the Dominos during the 1960’s, where the group had a open door of talent and lead vocalists, but Harold didn’t lead or front the group. Melvin was brains and business behind the group. He finally asked Teddy to lead the group after an impromptu performance where he came from the rear of the stage and began belting these vocals where the women just fell to their knees. Later, producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff signed the group to Philadelphia International Records in early 1972. By this time, Gamble and Huff had made a deal with CBS to distribute their records and the hits came out by the weeks. Teddy’s distinctive baritone voice, along with M.F.S.B backing the beautifully arranged records, would become a benchmark for the group and him during his solo career. The group had a great run with hits like “I Miss You,” “Bad Luck” and “Where Are All My Friends?” The landmark “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” would go on to sell over two million copies. During the end of Teddy’s run with the group, he’d have disputes with Harold over fiances and receiving credit for singing songs with the group. According to Teddy during his 1998 interview on WHYY’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” he adds: “when we finished our shows, people used come up to me and say, “Harold you were great!” My reply was, “I’m not Harold, I’m Teddy Pendergrass!” The rift was so bad that he eventually left the group and went on have a successful solo career.
When Teddy left, he was bombarded with tons of offers to record with other major labels, but the chemistry between the genius of Huff and Gamble and the PIR staff was a match made in heaven. With hits like “Close the Door,” “My Greatest Inspiration,” “Turn Off The Lights,” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me;” lead romantics to the dance floor and to the bedrooms. He was labeled as the “Teddy Bear” by women all over the world and was the first artist to start the “Women Only Tours” during the late 1970’s.
On March 18, 1982, Pendergrass’s brakes malfunctioned causing his car to hit a guard rail crossing into the opposite traffic lane that eventually collided into two trees. Pendergrass and his friend Tenika Watson were stuck in the car for close to an hour. Although Watson walked away with a few minor injuries, Pendergrass suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving him paralyzed from the waste down. But this tragic event and circumstances didn’t stop his success and comeback years later. In an interview with WHYY’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air, he told her after the accident “I had to reinvent myself. I had been known for the women only concerts and was labeled as this sex symbol. Performing and my image were never the same after my accident.” The media made a spectacle of Teddy’s association with Watson, who was a transsexual nightclub performer with whom he’s become close to upon the time of the accident.
I saw Teddy Pendergrass in Detroit back in 2004 where Chaka Khan opened for him at the Fox Theater. This was the first time he played the Motor City in almost 23 years. TP only played 40 minutes due to his cold and constant pain. Fans gave him a standing ovation and didn’t fret over his short performance. What I loved was how, even though he didn’t have the strength to perform, he still performed. Yeah, he should’ve opened for Chaka, but this would be the only and last time Detroiters like myself would see the Teddy Bear perform.
My fondest memory of Teddy is his record “Wake Up Everybody” with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Penned by the songwriting team of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, who also wrote the classics “Back Stabbers” and “Bad Luck,” used the power of words to empower listeners. The song was an anthem for Blacks due to the lack of quality education, health care, equality and business opportunities. What’s worse, in 2010, the lyrics still resonate loud in many Black and underprivileged areas across the country. “Wake Up Everybody” is still a wake up call to many and over 30 years later with Teddy’s powerful voice of approval.
In closing, Teddy Pendergrass left a trait in modern music that hasn’t been copied or duplicated. TP made seven and eight minute bedroom and dance floor classics. Teddy, along with the whole Gamble and Huff formula, made a wonderful evening for dancing and intimacy. That was the whole Philly soul formula. Romantic strings and lush arrangements mixed with Teddy’s sexy and powerful vocals. Kenny Gamble once said “we wrote and produced the songs…but the artists made them their own.” All of Pendergrass’s songs were his. No one could ever redo or try to record his music and have an impact like he did. Some have tried and failed miserably. His music will live on radio and quiet storm formats around the world. But his presence on soul music will leave a mark on those who grew up listening and having fond memories of how he made you love and dance to his music during the glory days of soul music. T.K.O!
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