Teddy Pendergrass was born Theodore DeReese Pendergrass on March 26, 1950. Pendergrass, who first rose to fame as the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in the 1970s, before a successful solo career, is the first Black male singer to record five consecutive multi-platinum albums in the US.
Pendergrass was the only child of Jesse Pendergrass and Ida Geraldine Epps. When he was still very young, his father left the family and was later murdered when Pendergrass was 12. Growing up in North Philadelphia, Pendergrass was steeped in both gospel and soul music. He was 2 years old when he first stood on a chair to sing at a storefront Holiness church. When he was a teenager his mother gave him a set of drums, and he taught himself to play them. Pendergrass attended Thomas Edison High School for Boys (now closed), but dropped out in the eleventh grade to enter the music business, recording his first song “Angel With Muddy Feet,” which, was not a commercial success.
Pendergrass played drums for several local Philadelphia bands, eventually becoming the drummer of The Cadillacs. In 1970, he was spotted by the Blue Notes’ founder, Harold Melvin, who convinced Pendergrass to play drums in the group. However, during a performance, Pendergrass began singing along, and Melvin, impressed by his vocals, made him the lead singer. Before Pendergrass joined the group, the Blue Notes had struggled to find success. They had their first US hit with I Miss You in 1972, with Pendergrass singing lead vocals.
A string of successful singles followed, including If You Don’t Know Me By Now, later covered by acts including Simply Red, and Don’t Leave Me This Way – also a hit for Thelma Houston in 1976. However, when Pendergrass challenged Melvin for top billing and failed, he left the band to pursue a solo career. It was this that brought him his greatest fame. His first solo album, Teddy Pendergrass, released in 1977, sold more than a million copies, and so did the two that followed it, Life Is a Song Worth Singing in 1978 and Teddy in 1979. A concert album, Teddy Live! Coast to Coast, went gold, selling more than half a million copies, followed by another million-seller, TP, in 1980, and the gold It’s Time for Love in 1981. His hits included Love TKO, Close The Door and Turn Off The Lights.
Pendergrass also came up with the concept of women-only concerts, which quickly sold out across the United States. The women audience members were given chocolate teddy bear-shaped lollipops to lick. These concerns turned him into a sex symbol with screaming, ecstatic women throwing teddy bears and lingerie onstage. In later years, Pendergrass would say he was slightly embarrassed by those shows.
Then, on March 18, 1982, on a winding road in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pendergrass’s Rolls-Royce smashed into a tree, and his career came to an abrupt halt. He had been driving home with a transvestite in his Rolls-Royce after a basketball game. His passenger escaped with cuts and bruises, but Spinal cord injuries left Pendergrass paralyzed from the chest down at 31. The accident was surrounded by salacious gossip, with rumours of sexual shenanigans in the vehicle at the time of the accident and suggestions that the former wife of a sports superstar was also a passenger but was whisked from the scene to avoid scandal.
After extensive physical therapy he resumed his recording career with Love Language, a gold album that included an early appearance by Whitney Houston on the album’s R&B hit single, Hold Me. With his 1985 album Workin’ It Back, Pendergrass began writing some of his own songs. His 1988 album Joy went gold, and its title track became a No. 1 R&B hit. Voodoo, a single from his 1993 album A Little More Magic, was nominated for a Grammy Award. (Though he was nominated more than once for the award, he never received one.)
His voice was less forceful but still recognizable. Though he could no longer tour, a worldwide television audience saw him sing at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia in 1985, and he returned occasionally to the stage in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2000 he sang Wake Up Everybody at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Two years later he performed a concert tour, singing from his wheelchair. In 2007, 25 years after his accident, he appeared at “Teddy at 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope and Possibilities,” a benefit concert for the group in Philadelphia. In 2008 “I Am Who I Am,” a musical based on Mr. Pendergrass’s life story, was performed by the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago.
Pendergrass also became an advocate for people with spinal cord injuries, and established the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a nonprofit group, in 1998 to help them “achieve their maximum potential in areas of education, employment, housing, productivity and overall independence”.
On June 5, 2009, Pendergrass underwent successful surgery for colon cancer and recovered to return home. A few weeks later he returned to the hospital with respiratory issues. After seven months, he died of respiratory failure on January 13, 2010, while hospitalized at Bryn Mawr Hospital in suburban Philadelphia.
Pendergrass had three children, Tisha, LaDonna, and Teddy II. In 1987, he had married a former Philadanco dancer named Karen Still, who had also danced in his shows. The couple amicably divorced in 2003. Pendergrass met Joan Williams in the spring of 2006. Pendergrass proposed to Joan after four months and they married in a private ceremony officiated by his Pastor Allyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church on Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008. A formal wedding was celebrated at The Ocean Cliff Resort in Newport, Rhode Island on September 6, 2008.