If there was a Mt. Rushmore of Soul, the faces of James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross would already be immortalized in stone.
Now Teddy Pendergrass belongs up there as well. If for no other reason that when it came to the fine art of setting the sheets afire, if you couldn’t get lucky to the macho music of the man known as “Teddy Bear,” why waste hers and yours time trying?
Long before there was Viagra, Teddy was there with the tonic for your love-making needs such as “Close the Door, “Turn Off the Lights”, and “Love TKO” .
Pendergrass passed away at age 59 eight months after undergoing colon cancer surgery. Relatives said he was having “difficulty recovering” from the procedure. Pendergrass had been confined to a wheelchair since suffering a spinal cord injury in a 1982 automobile accident when the brakes failed in his Rolls Royce and smashed into a tree.
The other passenger in Pendergrass’s car was Tenika Watson, a transsexual night club performer. Watson became a person of mystery and her relationship with Pendergrass became an item of speculation, but writer and activist Monica Roberts wrote about Watson on her blog, TransGriot and quotes a 1982 interview with Watson saying about the accident, “I was concerned about him (Pendergrass). I was concerned if he was really hurt. I feel about him as I do about any other human being. I thought we were both going to die.”
Pendergrass leaves behind a wife, three children, his mother and nine grandchildren.
The Teddy Bear had established his bona fides as a soul singer of the first order during his time with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Under the production of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Pendergrass went from the lead vocalist to the unquestioned force behind the Blue Notes. Melvin recognized he had a good thing going with Pendergrass and changed the group’s name to “Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass.” That’s quite a mouthful, but Pendergrass got the higher profile the hard way: by earning it.
The production by Gamble and Huff took Pendergrass and The Blue Notes turned the group into a force of nature that could do dance music (“The Love I Lost”), songs with a social conscience (“Bad Luck,” “Wake Up Everybody”) and lush love ballads (“I Miss You”). When Pendergrass went solo in 1976, he cut back on the social uplift and went straight to the boudoir and few singers have ever navigated the line between the sacred and the sensual world as well as he did.
What I appreciate most about Teddy tunes like “Close the Door” is that you know he’s talking about sex, but he’s never explicit or vulgar about it. When Teddy shouted, You got, you got what I want/You got, you got what I need there’s no mistaking what it is what he wants, but he’s Teddy Bear and there ain’t no need to be nasty when you can just be suggestive. Nobody could touch the Teddy Bear when he was in full growl. Even that boudoir barbarian, Marvin Gaye, had to back up and nod in respect toPendergrass when it came to putting together a sensual soundtrack of seduction.
If young girls and boys think a sexy lyric today is something like “face down, ass up,/that’s how I like to f***”, they could learn a lot from Pendergrass who knew how steamy things can get when more is suggested than spelled out. Probably more than a few of them were conceived while a Teddy tune was playing in the background.
Theodore DeReese Pendergrass, Sr. was born March 26, 1950 and died January 13, 2010. I’m grateful we had him as long as we did. His legacy of music left behind an impressive “body of work” and I do mean “body’ in every sense of the word. Teddy says life is a song worth singing so you might as well get up, get down, get funky and get loose.
Close the door. Turn off the lights. Rest in peace Teddy.