Teddy Pendergrass, the rhythm and blues singer whose albums routinely sell in the millions and whose ardent female fans have been known to scream themselves hoarse during his sensual and suggestive performances, was severely injured early yesterday morning when his 1981 Rolls-Royce crashed into two trees in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Pendergrass, who lives in nearby Gladwynne, suffered severe neck injuries that left him partially paralyzed.
According to Francis J. Sweeney Jr., vice president and hospital administrator of the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital Regional Spinal Cord Injury Center, Pendergrass was admitted to the hospital at 6:30 a.m. and had undergone tests to determine the extent of his injuries. "He is conscious, speaking, breathing normally and is not in pain. Some evidence of paralysis exists as a result of severe neck injuries located between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae located at the base of the neck just above the chest. There is no evidence of other injuries at this time. It is anticipated that he will have surgery in the future."
Police reported that Pendergrass, 32, and a companion, Tenika Watson, 31, had been traveling south on narrow, winding Wissahickon Drive when he apparently lost control of his vehicle at 1:30 a.m. The car then struck a concrete guardrail in the center of the roadway, spun around and crossed the northbound lane before striking the trees.
Pendergrass and Watson were trapped in the car for 45 minutes before rescue workers could pry open its doors. Watson was released from Germantown Hospital after treament for multiple contusions; after three hours of tests and X-rays, Pendergrass was transfered to Thomas Jefferson Hospital, one of 17 federally designated spinal cord injury centers in the nation. Police were unable to talk to Pendergrass but accident investigator Martin Kelly said there was no indication of drug or alcohol use. The car was towed to a police garage, where it was being examined for possible safety defects.
At Thomas Jefferson Hospital, Pendergrass was placed in the care of a team of neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, rehabilitation medicine physicians and intensive care nurses.
"He's being stabilized at the moment from a neurological as well as an orthopedic and general medical standpoint," Dr. Sweeney said at 4 p.m. yesterday. It was hard to assess the extent of the injuries resulting from damage to the spinal column so early, Sweeney said. "We can't really tell. There is some movement in his arms; there doesn't seem to be any in his legs, but that could be a transient thing. It's hard to say at this point." There was no indication yesterday whether Pendergrass' injuries would affect his ability to sing.
The singer was reported to be "sort of depressed." He was placed in traction to prevent movement that might further damage his spinal column or cord.
Pendergrass, who started singing in public at age 2 and who became an ordained minister at age 10, first achieved fame in 1971 as lead singer of the Blue Notes, whose hits included "The Love I Lost, "If You Don't Know Me by Now" and "Bad Luck." He left the group six years ago to pursue a successful solo career; his last seven albums, including his latest, "It's Time for Love," have achieved platinum and multi-platinum status.
The six-foot singer, who emphasizes the romantic ballad and the lush come-on, was heralded as being in the tradition of Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. His audiences tend to be overwhelmingly female. Sometimes he would hold women-only concerts in which fans were given Teddy Bear lollipops during the show. In recent years, he toned down his routine, choosing instead to crow that he was "150 percent all male."
Several years ago, the Philadelphia native bought the former estate of television personality Mike Douglas in Gladwynne. Pendergrass was extremely security-conscious, not just because of his fans, but because of the unsolved murder, in 1976, of ex-girlfriend and manager Taaz Lang in Philadelphia.
A spokeswoman for Thomas Jefferson said the hospital had been deluged with flowers, which, at the suggestion of Pendergrass' mother, were being distributed to the other patients in the hospital.