by Len Lear
“Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me,” which was screened Oct. 26 at the Ritz East and Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut St., and selected as the closing-night feature of the Philadelphia Film Festival, is a powerful, compelling documentary that chronicles the spiritual transformation the late Mt. Airy singing star underwent after being paralyzed in a car accident. (According to the Showtime website, the cable TV giant will also be screening the film, but the screening dates have not yet been scheduled.)
Those who are familiar with Pendergrass’ supersonic musical career probably do not know much about his life after the paralysis-causing accident on Lincoln Drive near Johnson Street in Germantown on March 18, 1982, when Teddy crashed his sports car into a median railing. But filmmaker Olivia Lichtenstein shows that Teddy’s inspiring story of persistence, overcoming deep depression to help others, is even more significant than his stellar music career.
Pendergrass, the first African American singer ever to have five million-selling LPs, died on Jan. 13, 2010, at the age of 59 in Bryn Mawr Hospital of colon cancer. He was a Main Line resident just before his death, but the soul singer was previously a resident of Allens Lane in West Mt. Airy, just a few blocks from our own house on Mt. Airy Avenue.
I must admit I did not know Teddy was a neighbor of ours until I received a phone call in 1977 from Ben Burns, editor of Sepia magazine, a national black-oriented magazine for which I had written several previous articles. “I just found out that Teddy has broken away from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and is launching a solo career,” said Burns. “I’d like you to interview him and do an article for us. I want to make sure I get the article before Ebony (their main competition) runs one on him.” (As a solo artist, Teddy went on to earn five Grammy nominations for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and he had a string of 10 consecutive platinum records.)
After a failed attempt to interview Teddy at his center city studio, his PR person set up an interview at Teddy’s impressive stone house on Allens Lane, whereupon I realized we were practically neighbors. The next morning at 11, I was in Teddy’s huge living room, staring at his grand piano. After a long wait, the soul singing superstar came over and introduced himself.
He told me that he had been born in South Carolina but raised in North Philadelphia. His mother, Ida, worked at Sciolla’s Supper Club in Northeast Philadelphia when he was growing up, and she would take him to see some of the nation’s top pop singers there, like Connie Francis, Jackie Wilson, Perry Como and The Platters. “When I saw how much applause they got and how they were treated with such respect and admiration by everyone,” he said, “I knew that’s what I also wanted to do.”
Pendergrass essentially taught himself to sing and play the drums. He dropped out of Overbrook High School in 1968 and was able to get a job with a touring band called Little Royal that performed James Brown-type music. After that he landed a gig as a drummer with a doo-wop group called the Cadillacs. Around 1970, some of the members joined Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
Teddy went along as well, but his strong vocal style, heavily influenced by Otis Redding and Marvin Junior of the Dells, soon got him promoted to lead singer. When Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were signed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records in 1972, it was the beginning of a four-year string of hits, all showcasing Teddy’s raspy, sultry vocals. They made their chart debut with “I Miss You,” then their first #1 hit, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “The Love I Lost,” also #1, and their final #1, “Wake Up Everybody.”
Because of his good looks and sexy voice, Pendergrass was often compared to Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke. He was the first performer to have “women only” concerts, where women would throw their underwear up on stage (maybe even motel keys), screaming, “I love you, Teddy Bear!” (You might say he was the black Tom Jones or that Tom Jones was the white Teddy Pendergrass.) I must say that during the two interviews I had with him — five hours in all — he came across at times as an arrogant jerk whose goal in life was to accumulate as many expensive baubles as possible and bed as many women as possible (like a legion of other celebrities).
But then came the tragic car accident that left him a quadriplegic with a spinal cord injury, causing Teddy to spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. A lengthy, painful rehabilitation followed, and Pendergrass’ comeback was celebrated with a performance at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia (at the Spectrum) on July 13, 1985.
He sang a very moving “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” with Ashford and Simpson that left many in the audience in tears. Because I wanted to do an article about his widely-praised comeback, I contacted Teddy and did a phone interview for the Chronicle Newspapers, a now-defunct chain of five suburban newspapers.
During the interview, Teddy shocked me by apologizing for his behavior during our previous contacts.
“I am sorry I made you wait so long and acted kind of arrogant during our conversations,” he said. “I had so much fame and so many hangers-on telling me every day how great I was, it got into my head and messed up my values. I was doing drugs, and I thought nothing could harm me.
“I would not want anyone on earth to go through what I have gone through (the paralysis and ongoing, almost unbearable pain), but it definitely did put things in perspective. I know now what is important in life, and it’s not having people tell you how great you are. It’s loving other people and helping those who are in need.”
In 1998, Teddy started the Teddy and Joan Pendergrass Foundation, which aids people with spinal cord injuries, similar to the Christopher Reeve Foundation. In 2007, 25 years after his accident, there was a gala concert at the Kimmel Center, “Teddy 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope and Possibilities,” which raised a substantial sum for the foundation. Teddy sang three songs at the concert that brought the house down. It was his last public performance.
According to an Inquirer article in January of 1982 by Dan Gottlieb, a psychologist and former Inquirer columnist who is also in a wheelchair as a result of a 1979 automobile accident, “Six months ago, Teddy told me he was putting together a ministry to teach the lessons he had learned about life and love.”
For more information, visit teddypendergrassofficial.com