Twenty minutes from Philadelphia, the roads are uninvitingly curvy, snaking through a green forest sparsely dotted with expensive houses. At the end of one long driveway sits the mansion on the hill, elegantly Tudor, its 34 marbled rooms open to the soft light that floats through whip-fresh country air.
Its privacy is defined by tall black iron gates and stony walls that loom and is ensured by an imposing dog house adorned with a scrawled threat -- "Killer's Place."
The man who owns this house is earth-handsome and bristle-bearded, elegant in his stylish red track suit and sneakers. When he talks, he moves his head easily, his arms less elegantly. That is all. Though he has some strength in his biceps, he cannot move his fingers, and must guide his motorized wheelchair with gestures that are sometimes awkward, and sometimes apprehensive.
"If I go forward, you better catch me," he warns. "I'm just beginning to understand these things."
Teddy Pendergrass, 34, once the most popular soul singer in America, is paralyzed from the shoulders down. He has been a quadriplegic since March 18, 1982, when his luxurious Rolls-Royce careened off a guardrail in nearby Germantown and crashed into a tree. Pendergrass' neck was broken, his spinal cord crushed. It took police 45 minutes to cut him out of his car and rush him to the Spinal Cord Injury Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
When Pendergrass woke up moments after the crash, he knew he was alive, but he couldn't feel it. "I realized I was still here because I saw the wreckage," he says softly. "After that I didn't know very much of anything."
In the chill of that early spring morning, Teddy Pendergrass ended his career as one of the most charismatic singers and sex symbols in pop music and began his battle for survival. If there was to be life, there must also be song, or the life was not worth living. To hear that first note, to make that first sound, was downright scary.
"There was no time when I said, 'Well, now I'm going to try,' " Pendergrass says, reliving moments that must once have seemed endless. "It wasn't until after all the hospital rigmarole and the tests that I recognized I could probably still make a go of singing. I hummed, starting out with television commercials. I thought to myself, 'Well, I'm still in tune.' That's when I became conscious I was going to make a go of it, come hell or high water."
The hell would come first. It soon became apparent that the injuries had left Teddy Pendergrass significantly paralyzed from the neck down, with functional use of and sensations in only his shoulders and elbows. Even now he must be fed and exercised by attendants, who take care of all his needs.
For Pendergrass, known to his predominantly female fans as Teddy Bear, the accident -- and with it the revelation that his car-mate, Tanika Watson, was a well-known transsexual with a long arrest record (Pendergrass insists he didn't know) -- was the greatest in a series of personal tragedies that included the still-unsolved murder of his manager and at least one attempt on his life by a distraught fan. If he had his way, it would be the last.
"I'm constantly trying to be on the upswing," Pendergrass says. "I'm going to do the best to hell I can. I've always been sensitive to the problems other people have, tried to help elevate others' spirits. When this happened to me, all that concern for other people, I borrowed some of it. I use it for myself, to get up, to try to feel alive. Because I'm going to be here until I go . . .
"But it's hard. I've always been one to operate under pressure. You take me to the line and say it's time to go, whatever may be the problem, I tend to use that as a motivating factor. I remember the days when things weren't financially decent at all. I'm talking about the $10-a-show nights and you worked five shows a night. That's a test. How bad do you want to be in show business? Are you willing to walk to work, do five shows and walk back home, to crawl through the city? I feel if I can get above that . . .
"I do know what it is to have some success. And to have no success. I've done that three or four times. I've had to move out, move back, move out, move back." Pendergrass looks around at the expanse of his "joint," as he likes to call Chateau D'Amour. "To be very honest," he says, "sure I looked at another house. I don't need this big tub. This ain't necessarily for me, it's for everybody else. It's a comfortable place to be, but I certainly don't need the size. I think I can make pretty much any adjustment."
Gladwyne is quite an adjustment after the North Philadelphia ghetto where Pendergrass grew up. It was there that he started singing in church at age 2, became an ordained Pentecostal minister at age 10, a self-taught drummer at 13. His mother, for whom he bought another "joint" in Gladwyne, is deeply religious and, says Pendergrass, "there was no rock music in my house when I was growing up. I didn't go to a party until I was 14. I was a late bloomer."
Eventually he joined a group called the Cadillacs (as a drummer), which merged with another Philadelphia group, the Blue Notes. By 1970 Pendergrass had moved from behind the drum kit to center stage as lead vocalist. He stayed there until 1976, when, after an acrimonious split, he embarked on a solo career that turned him into a major pop idol. His performances, some of them before women-only audiences, were stereotypically macho, yet his talents as a singer were never obscured.
"I found a road to go down that would be rewarding musically and careerwise," Pendergrass explains, "and that was to sing about love. To this day, I don't understand the difference between a love song and a gospel song. I guess it all depends on who you're singing it to. It's all from the heart, it's all honest. It all flows together."
There were gold and platinum albums (they now decorate the walls of his office), sold-out arena concerts and all the other trappings of success. All that changed in March 1982. Now the victories are smaller, though they sometimes come every day. In July Pendergrass received his high school equivalency diploma from the Washington GED Board. He had thought about coming down for the graduation ceremonies, but "at the very last minute, I thought maybe I shouldn't go. I wasn't feeling very well and there was so much being made of it."
He had started the correspondence program soon after the accident, "something I'd always wanted to do, to make sure I achieved at least a high school diploma . . . It was mentally stimulating and it took my mind off of my personal problems. I have yet to figure out where I'm going to go with it. Maybe I'll take some business courses, kind of tighten up what we're doing around here. I stay on top of everything, and this is a big operation," he adds proudly. "To say the least, it's overwhelming, but that's good. I can't complain about that aspect."
Although he recently released his first album since the accident, it's obvious that Pendergrass' first order of business is his continued physical therapy, which includes electrical muscle stimulation and biofeedback, and what he calls "mental therapy." He seems on top of things, though he's quick to admit, "I have my days. I have my days."
There have been efforts to turn him into a spokesman for victims of spinal cord injury, but that's one weight Pendergrass is not quite ready to take on. "I think I'm having a hard enough time trying to adjust to the situation," he says calmly. "I understand what I have to do to just meet each day, to lay out what I can do." There has been talk of a major benefit concert at the Sugar Bowl, but, says Pendergrass, "That's probably more than I can handle at this time. There's so much attention, people asking, 'Are you going to go back to work, going to go back on stage?' And I have to be very honest -- it scares me.
"That's what I love, that's second nature to me. I perform like I breathe. But it's also something I stripped from my mind after this accident. I had to put it way back there so I could come out of this with any kind of sanity. I don't want to get pressured as to when or will I. If anything is going to change, it's going to be over a period of time.
"And I need time to be over it. I don't think right now I want to go on a stage and do a show, because I don't know how successfully I'd come out of it, emotionally. I don't know how to do that like this." He gestures awkwardly at the wheelchair, but his voice is steady.
"I'm very used to knowing where I'm going, what I'm doing, what step I'm going to try to do next. This is brand new. I hope to hell it's not for too much longer. I don't know.
"At the same time I have to be very conscious of any changes in my system and be ready to work with it as it's changing, so if I got too busy and took the dates and traveled, I might fall out of tune, fall out of control with what's going on with myself. And that ain't the best place to be."
There's another big question that will have to get answered sometime: How will Teddy Bear's fans, used to his suggestive macho swagger, react to seeing their idol performing from a wheelchair?
"Could be more controversial than the Jacksons," Pendergrass says, laughing heartily. The joke around Chateau D'Amour is that "it would be the biggest tour in the world." But he adds soberly, "I'm going to work because I want to sing, not because I need to sell tickets. I don't know how to go about doing a show in this particular way. It's another thing to deal with . . . and right now, it's too rough for me."
His new album, "Love Language," a collection heavy on ballads, was a test not only of his singing skills (which appear undiminished) but of his spirit as well.
"If there's any challenge in the world, that was it," he says. "We did the album, and after four days' rest I had to go into surgery. Talk about mental pressure! Twenty-one days blocked out from song one to song 10 and then you know they're going to cut you! You try to be as creative as you can and not think about it.
"For the most part I thought it was good. There's a difference in my voice . During the time between the hospital and the recording studio, I had to try to understand what that was. There is some damage -- some nerve situations, I know there is a difference -- but if you don't tell anybody, I won't. Hopefully I can still go around and sing good music regardless of how long I can hold a note. As long as it's effective."
Even though he's not touring, Teddy Pendergrass' music is getting around. On this day he's just finished listening to one of his new songs, "Hold Me in Your Arms," used on "As the World Turns." "No dialogue and a fairly hot scene, if I say so myself," he chortles. Another, "Choose Me," is the theme song for a soon-to-be-released film starring Lesley Ann Warren, Genevieve Bujold and Keith Carradine. So he can sing again, and he can record again. Will he walk again? There's a slight pause, but no restraint in the answer. "I sure hope so," he says. "If it's humanly possible, if anything changes, I'm certainly going to be on top of it. We've got our thoughts crossed. I would say I got my fingers crossed, but that's a little hard."
When he says "We've got our thoughts crossed," Pendergrass is not just being figurative. He's had tremendous support, from his fans (who sent him tens of thousands of letters and hundreds of teddy bears) to his production and management companies, from girlfriend Karen Still ("a real good lady I can trust") to his family.
"I don't know what it is not to have support," Pendergrass says. "We are a family of support. This was not somebody sitting up just to cushion poor Teddy. It's what I've been accustomed to all my life. I was raised as an only child, without a father, and there was always extended family -- the cousins, the uncles, the aunts, other people's brothers and sisters. That support was there. If it had fallen out from under me, I probably would not have been able to make it."
He's also buoyed by his children -- Teddy Jr., Tisha, LaDonna and Tamon. Though they have three different mothers, all come under Pendergrass' open and protective wing. Teddy is the oldest at 13, and his father admits that it is "real complicated" giving ages for the others. "As I say, we have a lot of family support. [The other] three children are within a year, between 9 and 10. You figure that one out."
For many years, Teddy Pendergrass used to open his concerts with the same song: "Life Is a Song Worth Singing."
"That was the first message I wanted to sing," he says. "Whatever your mood was or whatever was going through your mind when you came to see Teddy, it was a time to forget your personal problems.
"To me, life is still a song worth singing, regardless. I don't give a damn, it's still worth singing. Everybody has a day when they feel, 'Oh God, I don't want to be bothered with anybody,' and there's no harm in feeling that way.
"But if you're here on earth, life is a song worth singing. It doesn't change. It doesn't change."