Teddy Pendergrass, 59

R& B singer Teddy Pendergrass, 59, dies of colon cancer

Remembering the R&B legend who made a name for himself in the music industry with his sultry, romantic ballads.
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

Teddy Pendergrass, 59, the rhythm-and-blues sex symbol whose steamy paeans to romance electrified fans and sold millions of records until a 1982 car crash left him paraplegic, died Jan. 13 of colon cancer at Bryn Mawr Hospital in suburban Philadelphia.

His powerful, sensual baritone and muscular physique drew thousands to his "for women only" midnight performances. So devoted were his fans that gunfire once erupted over possession of his sweat-soaked headband. Five times nominated for the Grammy Award as best male R&B singer, Mr. Pendergrass saw 10 consecutive albums of his make-out music each sell more than 1 million copies.

His hits "Close the Door," "Turn Off the Lights," "Love T.K.O." and many others turned him into an international superstar. He had previous fame in the early 1970s with "Wake Up Everybody" and "If You Don't Know Me by Now," when he sang with the Philadelphia band Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, but it didn't match his success as a top practitioner of the seductive song. Tall and handsome, he often shed his shirt during performances, to the glee of his audience.

Then on March 18, 1982, Mr. Pendergrass was driving his Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit on a winding road on his way to a downtown Philadelphia nightclub when he careered into a metal guardrail and crashed into a tree. He wasn't wearing a seat belt, and his head jammed into the roof, breaking his neck and partially severing his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the waist down, but he could still sing, although without his signature power. The virile celebrity, who had boasted he was "150 percent all male," suddenly became a figure of pity.

Stunned and depressed by this change in fortune, Mr. Pendergrass isolated himself in his Philadelphia Main Line home, Chateau d'Amour, contemplated suicide and refused rehabilitation. His recovery wasn't helped by the fact that he was driving on a suspended license, or by rumors that drugs and alcohol played a role in the accident (local police said it was excessive speed and reckless driving), or the fact that his passenger at the time was a transsexual nightclub entertainer, Tenika Watson. Mr. Pendergrass said Watson was a casual acquaintance to whom he'd simply offered a ride.

He went back to rehab eventually, but stage fright took hold. Although two previously recorded works came out, he took a year away from music, and it was 1985 before he appeared on stage again. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson brought him onstage during their segment of the Live Aid concert from Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, and Mr. Pendergrass sang the opening verse of "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)." The 90,000 people in the stadium gave him a standing ovation. His reaction, he told The Washington Post, was "jubilation!"

He had a few more appearances on TV specials, but a real return to performance came only in 1996 after a role was specifically written for him in the 20th anniversary version of the musical "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God."

For the next 23 weeks, appearing in eight shows a week, he toured, accompanied by a personal assistant and two nurses. Two years later, he published his autobiography, "Truly Blessed," the title of his 1990 hit song. In 2001, he returned to his own concerts, drawing full houses.

Theodore DeReese Pendergrass was born March 26, 1950, in Kingstree, S.C., and raised by his mother in north Philadelphia. The young Mr. Pendergrass sang gospel at the Glad Tidings Holiness Church and was ordained a minister as a child. He began playing secular music at the supper club where his mother worked, and soon his talent as a drummer landed him a job with the Cadillacs, a doo-wop group that later merged with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.

Producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff worked with them, combining the smoothness of Motown with the funk of Stax to create a definable Philadelphia sound, lushly orchestrated and with material that mixed social consciousness with romance. Most important, Mr. Pendergrass moved from behind the drum kit to the center microphone, and hits such as "If You Don't Know Me by Now," "The Love I Lost" and "Wake Up, Everybody," followed. Gamble began calling him "the black Elvis."

In 1975, after an acrimonious split with Melvin, Mr. Pendergrass set out on his own, specializing in slow-dance tunes with steamy and torrid lyrics. "His songs are to eros as church hymns are to religion," music critic Geoffrey Himes wrote in The Washington Post. Jon Pareles, a New York Times music critic, called Mr. Pendergrass "a soft-focus seducer, never calling for anything more explicit than sharing a shower. But when he moaned or insisted, 'Let me do what I want to do,' everyone knew what he meant."

The singer founded the Pendergrass Institute for Music and Performing Arts and supported the rights of the disabled, appearing in Annapolis in 1999 to support a golf course in Prince George's County that would make the sport more accessible to people with disabilities.

Survivors include his wife, Joan Pendergrass; his mother, Ida Pendergrass; three children from previous relationships; two stepchildren; and seven grandchildren.

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