Teddy Pendergrass’ voice was astounding, muscular enough to lift cars and crack granite. When paired with the elite writers, arrangers and instrumentalists at Philadelphia International Records in the Seventies, the resulting music was often magnificent. Popular, too: Pendergrass released a platinum-certified LP every year between 1977 and 1980.
But thanks to the partially segregated way that music is made, marketed and consumed in America, the pop mainstream treated Pendergrass, who died in 2010, with relative indifference. He only cracked the Top 40 once, and he went unrecognized by most critics at the time — you won’t find raves about his music in year-end Pazz & Jop polls.
“When you get a black man who’s tall, strapping and has that kind of voice, it’s very hard to launch them,” explains Valerie Simpson, who worked with Pendergrass as part of the songwriter-producer-artist duo Ashford & Simpson. “You have white men controlling the music industry; whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, they don’t pick the strapping black guy to stand behind.” Because of that, she adds, “[Pendergrass] hasn’t been celebrated to the extent he should have been.”
Two new projects hope to change that. First is Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me, the latest in a deluge of music documentaries, which premiered on Showtime February 8. In addition, Wasted Talent, one of the companies that produced the film, also worked with Sony’s Legacy Recordings and the publication Mixmag to put together an EP that enlists contemporary dance music luminaries to remix Pendergrass’ work. Teddy Pendergrass: The Remixes is out March 8.
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If You Don’t Know Me argues that Pendergrass’ lack of accolades is due in part to the time before his solo career: The singer got his start as a drummer in Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, a long-running soul ensemble. “He almost went unnoticed, except his voice couldn’t [go unnoticed],” Simpson says. “He stood out in those early shows, so finally he had to give up the drums.”
Pendergrass debuted as a singer on the Blue Notes’ 1972 single “I Miss You,” a towering, tear-out-your-hair ballad that gets progressively more wrenching over the course of eight minutes. The track gave the Blue Notes their first ever Top Ten R&B hit.
But Pendergrass’ Hollywood-script-worthy leap from back of the stage to front-and-center was not reflected in the single’s billing. The track was attributed to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes; research was required to determine who was behind the full-throttle lead vocal, which is so unhinged at times it threatens to swallow “I Miss You” whole. “The fact that they weren’t called Teddy Pendergrass and the Blue Notes, that has affected his name recognition,” says Olivia Lichtenstein, who directed If You Don’t Know Me.
It wasn’t just about recognition. The film also alleges that Melvin vacuumed up the lion’s share of the Blue Notes’ profits. The group continued to rack up R&B hits, including more ballads and driving numbers that prefigured the rise of disco, allowing Pendergrass to stir up commotion on the dancefloor. But If You Don’t Know Me strongly suggests that the proceeds from the Blue Notes’ success were not shared equally: On the road, Melvin, who died in 1997, stayed in fancy suites, while the other group members pinched pennies at cheap motels. This contributed to Pendergrass’ eventual decision to cut and run. Melvin responded by threatening the singer with bodily harm.
When Pendergrass struck out on his own with his eponymous 1977 album, he was finally able to enjoy some of the name recognition his voice deserved, and to earn better splits from his hits. He continued to sing torrid ballads, and on subsequent albums, Pendergrass’ slow numbers grew more explicitly erotic, often with titles that doubled as commands: “Close the Door,” “Come Go With Me,” “Turn off the Lights.”
These served as vocal showcases. “If you hear his a capella, he was always pouring in everything,” says DJ Pierre, the inventor of acid house, who contributed to the forthcoming compilation of Pendergrass remixes. “I don’t know how he wasn’t drained and out of strength every show. He’s almost yelling at times.”
While some critics derided this power as “macho chest-beating,” Pendergrass wasn’t all about hammering force. “He had a lot of range,” adds Simpson, who prefers Pendergrass’ version of “Is It Still Good to Ya,” which she co-wrote, to her own. “He wasn’t a four-note wonder. He was a joy to hear.”
To balance his ballads, Pendergrass made club records that were at once immaculate and ferocious, following in the tradition of Blue Notes singles like “Bad Luck.” The intro of “The More I Get, the More I Want” is a mini-tour-de-force all by itself, with a two-part, question-and-answer bass riff, doubling lines on guitar, itchy, racing hi-hats and aching harmonies from Pendergrass. That’s all before the horns, orchestra, backup singers and full drum-kit go to work. Singles like those are why “Teddy is connected to the roots of why I do what I do,” says DJ Pierre.
Nonetheless, Pendergrass still faced obstacles to widespread recognition. The infamous Disco Demolition Night, in 1979, was an example of the not-so-latent racism (and homophobia) that was prevalent among white listeners and gatekeepers at radio in the Seventies. Similarly, MTV was notorious for refusing to endorse the early work of artists like Prince and Michael Jackson, to the point where Walter Yetnikoff, then president of CBS Records, threatened to pull the rest of his roster’s music from MTV rotation if the channel did not give Jackson a chance. And according to Simpson, Prince and Jackson were “easier sells” than Pendergrass.
So while Pendergrass was a commanding presence on the R&B circuit — millions of albums sold, and at one point, five consecutive Top Ten hits — between 1977 and 1982, the pop mainstream mostly ignored him. The only single that managed to dent the Top 40 on the Hot 100 was “Close the Door.” Pendergrass’ music was not played on pop radio. He was only nominated for Grammys within his genre. He did not win.
Pendergrass was hardly the only one stuck in this predicament. Frankie Beverly and Maze released six consecutive gold-certified albums between 1977 and 1983, but had zero crossover presence. The Gap Band went gold twice and platinum twice during the same period, but only managed two Top 40 hits.
In theory, music journalists might provide a counterbalance by shining a spotlight on prominent black artists that were being ignored by white listeners. But when the Pazz & Jop poll of music critics looked back on 1977, there was not a single soul album in their Top Ten. The black singers who were honored by critics in the late Seventies and early Eighties tended to be the rare ones who achieved crossover hits — Donna Summer, Prince — or those with pre-disco Motown pedigrees: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. Pendergrass and Beverly and the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson — and many more — were not so lucky.
If You Don’t Know Me posits that Pendergrass would have become a crossover star anyway, despite the obstacles in his path. But in 1982, the singer injured his spine in a car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down. “He was about to tip over into global superstardom,” asserts Lichtenstein. “That’s when he had the accident. Then he didn’t appear for several years, and then even though he did go on to record and four of his albums went gold, he wasn’t appearing much in person, going on stage.”
His lack of mainstream recognition, even in an era when historical revisionism is commonplace, “did make it harder” for Lichtenstein to secure funding for her film. “If you go to somebody and say, ‘I want to make a film about Prince,’ that’s going to be easier,” she says. “You have to be dogged. It was a question of finding people who got it and got him.”
But when she reached out to Pendergrass’ friends and collaborators to ask them to appear in If You Don’t Know Me, Lichtenstein was heartened by their responses: “One of the constant refrains from people was, ‘Teddy deserves this.'”