Teddy Pendergrass, originally the lead singer for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (the '70's smoothest vocal group), is a very fortunate performer: His singing has been enhanced by the luxuriant expanse of Gamble-Huff's production of his three solo albums.
These recordings, guided by the understated handiwork of Philly soul's legendary producers, are meticulous attempts to fashion Pendergrass into the cool, contemporary equivalent of the Ice Man himself, Jerry Butler.
As a debonair creation of the Gamble-Huff laboratory, Pendergrass soon evolved into a sex symbol ("Teddy Pender, the Female Bender"). Gradually he became more concerned with his beautiful body than with his beautiful voice. This preoccupation with preening and primping is most evident on Pendergrass' current album, "Teddy Live! Coast to Coast" (Phil. Int. KZ2 36294).
The double det is so suave it's almost somniferous. Accompanied by the Teddy Bear Orchestra and Teddy's Angels (for whom the audience howls like horny hyenas), Pendergrass glibly sings his mellow version of what once was termed "make-out music," melodies to nibble ears by.
Through four sides, Pendergrass teases and strokes as if he were God's gift to womankind ("If you're ready for serious business, I'll take it all off"), continually asking from his pedestal for sensual pleasure. Hubris, however, is his fatal flaw, because the romantic intimacy he tries to convey begins to fade into a rather commercial image: a candlelit dinner of Kraft macaroni and Riunite on ice.
The album is as musically padded as Pendergrass' image, the low point being a highfalutin medley of the Blue Notes' hits. (Consumers need only purchase the Blue Notes' "Collectors' Item" for the real thing.) The 11-minute extrapolation of "When Somebody Loves You Back," though, succeeds because it is padded. It's a game show for the ears, the contestants being Teddy's adoring female fans, as he selects various voices to sing along."Come on down!" he calls, inspired by the announcer on "The Price Is Right."
Side Four is positively weird, providing the ultimate superfluity -- three new studio cuts sandwiched between four short interviews with a spicy deejay, Mimi Brown. "Tell me, Teddy," she asks, "how do you like your eggs?"
Basically, Pendergrass' problem is that his sexual image is too antiseptic.
In sharp contrast, Millie Jackson also has released a live double-album. "Live and Uncensored" (Polydor/Spring SP-2-6725), that compiles the highlights from her previous five albums into a funky, vulgar, and perfectly wicked definitive performance. Jackson sings with such hot-and-nasty fury that she makes Pendergrass sound like a gigolo.
Forget Donna Summer. Not even earthshakers like Koko Taylor or Ann Pebbles can break the windows and tear down the playhouse like Millie Jackson, mistress of the purgatorial rap. Always intent upon blowing her audience's brains out, she even can transform Toto's inspidid "Hold the Line" into inspired raunch.
Her current ribald recording may be the sleaziest live album by a female r&b vocalist since "Etta James Rocks the House" (and that was in 1963). Sweat practically drips from its armpits.
There are moments of exhuberant comedy on this album worthy of Richard Pryor: Millie's hilarious attack against her closet fans ("the same ones who be talkin' 'about I'm dirty, be buyin' my --- and hidin' it"), and "The Soaps," a chastisement of women who sit on their rumps all day and watch soap operas, a pathetic substitute, Millie observes, for the real lust of life.
"If I didn't put a little cursing in my stuff, ya'll wouldn't buy it," confesses Millie during one of her many raps. Yet she shouldn't feel that's necessary to earn our respect -- all she really has to do is sing in her booming, boisterous manner.
Her cover of Luther Ingram's "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)," with its melodramatic mid-rap, may be her bawdy center piece, but her sentimental interpretation of Kenny Rogers' "Sweet Music Man" is a direction in which she feels equally comfortable.
Easily Millie Jackson's most exciting (and explicit) work to date, "Live and Uncensored" is a symphony unto itself, a hardcore weave of filthy jokes, lonely raps, ripe sexuality and sizzling frankness. It is, in short, the gospel truth.