Turning Off His Light: Teddy Pendergrass Joins the Ancestors at 59

Before there was Luther, there was Teddy. Also known as TP. As Teddy P. As Teddy Bear.

When I worked at Stanford University in the late Seventies-early Eighties, there was this older, graying black man who helped drive the Marguerite buses on campus. (The Marguerite is a free bus service that takes students and employees back and forth across the sprawling “Farm.”) He had a portable cassette player, and he played nothing but Teddy Pendergrass, over and over again, all throughout his working day. Loud. Teddy Bear was his main man, an aural form of Viagra that connected him, no doubt, to his roots and to his feelings about women and love.

Teddy Pendergrass, dead at 59

Teddy Pendergrass, affectionately known as “Teddy Bear” has died at the age of 59 (Courtesy: City Brights)

[…] Pendergrass was born March 26, 1950 in Philadelphia as Theodore DeReese Pendergrass. His mother, who raised him (his father, who left the family when he was a boy, was later murdered in 1962), discovered his talent when he started singing in church when he was only 2 1/2 years old, according to his Web site.

He got his start as a drummer and in 1969 hooked up with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

He moved to the front as a vocalist soon after, and by 1971, the group had signed with legendary producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International Records.

The group scored such hits as “The Love I Lost,” “Yesterday I Had the Blues” and “Wake Up, Everybody.”

I wonder if this guy, if he is yet alive, is mourning the death of this very manly, dynamic singer, whose life was cut all too short by colon cancer, but whose solo singing career would not be the same because of a tragic automobile accident in 1982. On the verge of mainstream stardom, Pendergrass was left paralyzed from the waist down when the brakes failed on his Rolls-Royce. The car careened through a guard rail and crashed into two trees.

There was a lot of talk about Pendergrass’ passenger, a transsexual entertainer named Tenika Wilson, who walked away unhurt from the scene of the accident, but to me, it did not diminish my interest in the singer, any more than Eddie Murphy‘s encounter with a transsexual with whom he said he had merely offered a ride years later. To me, it was the voice and its feeling and phrasing that belonged to me. I know that the fantasy of possession is a large part of a singer’s appeal to heterosexual women, however, while the rumors swirled–and amused me–about how the accident really came about, I had to admit that I still appreciated the man and his music.

My favorite songs from Teddy was “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” (famously covered by Simply Red and Seal), “The Love I Lost,” and “Bad Luck.” And this one from You Tube, as well as “Close The Door” among others. I’m sure his oeuvre is being played all over the country as I write.

“They don’t fill you with hope after something like this,” Pendergrass told the Daily News in 2007.

“They tell you that your life is going to be shorter, but they don’t know by how much.”

He spent six months in a hospital after the accident but returned to recording the next year with the album Love Language.

He released in 1985 Working It Back, which was followed by Joy (1988), Truly Blessed (1990) A Little More Magic (1993) and You and I (1997).

Gamble and Huff, in a joint statement, said that Pendergrass was “one of the greatest artists that the music industry has ever known, and there hasn’t been another one since.

“We’ve lost our voice and we’ve lost our best friend, but we’re thankful for what we had,” the statement read. “It was beautiful. He was one of the best.”

Earlier, Huff reminisced during an interview aired on WDAS-FM about Pendergrass’ first solo performance, which was at a club in California.

“That night I saw the coming of a superstar,” Huff said. “When Teddy walked out on the stage, he didn’t even open his mouth and the place went crazy with screaming females. He was just so dynamic, and when he started singing, he just blew them away.”

Gamble noted what it was about Pendergrass that drove all those ladies crazy.

“He was tall, dark and handsome,” Gamble said. “He had a magnetism about him . . . He was injured 28 years ago and hung in there a long time. He was strong as a bull.”

Yes, he was indeed tall and dark and handsome. That was something not lost on me or thousands of other women. My favorite memory of him was at the Live Aid concert in 1985 with Ashford and Simpson, who sang “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” along with him in his motorized wheelchair. He looked so happy, he looked as if he wanted to bust all bonds keeping him in that chair. His voice was still there, but some said that it did not possess the same power that he had before the accident. Yet Pendergrass fought on.

He was wheelchair-bound and angry, but fought back with the help of his wife Karen and his family. He went on to make other songs, and was nominated for a Grammy for Voodoo in 1993.

Overall, Teddy Pendergrass produced 33 singles and received five Grammy nominations. He will forever been remembered and hailed as one of the pioneer success stories in black music, defining the music and culture of the 70s and 80s. Before his death Teddy Pendergrass had already achieved living legend status, and will forever hold that place in our lives. Teddy Pendergrass is the legendary prince of R&B.

Pendergrass only retired four years ago. In that time, he toured in the company of Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God and published an autobiography, Truly Blessed. Teddy also founded and ran his own charity, The Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, to help others dealing with spinal cord injuries “to live their best life,” said The Times in Britain.

However, one of the reasons Pendergrass gave for retiring was the struggle to bring his wheelchair and equipment on every tour on planes–in essence–the unease, weariness and inaccessibility he experienced as a differently-abled man.

Teddy Pendergrass died from complications of his colon cancer surgery at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He is survived by his wife, three children, nine grandchildren, and his mother.

~ by blksista on January 14, 2010.

3 Responses to “Turning Off His Light: Teddy Pendergrass Joins the Ancestors at 59”

  1. R.I.P. Teddy, I went to your concerts and you had the most beautiful voice, I will always love your music. GOD bless your family that you leave behind


  2. R.I.P Teddy.

    LOL at that bus driver.


    • Don’t laugh. That guy was powerfully serious about Teddy. Women talk about singers like Marvin, Luther and Teddy, but guys can relate. I knew that when I would listen along with him; I knew that when I would see brothers getting all choked up over one or two songs on the radio that reminded them of a woman that they had loved and lost.


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