Thursday, 14 January 2010

“Turn off the lights, and light a candle” - Teddy Pendergrass (1950-2010)

If you’re of a certain age (as I am), then by now you’ll know the tiresome familiarity of turning on the TV, opening a newspaper or checking a website, to be greeted by the news that yet another significant musical figure from your youth has died. I wasn’t even halfway through the first coffee of the day when I noticed Roots drummer/bandleader Questlove posting a load of Teddy Pendergrass songs in his Twitter feed earlier this morning, so it took a few minutes before I figured out what was up.

Certain voices are probably always going to remind me of less troubled (but no less confusing) times, and Teddy Pendergrass is one of them. When If You Don’t Know Me By Now started getting played on the radio over here in 1972, anyone already attuned to the lush melancholy of increasingly popular Philadelphia vocal groups like the Stylistics would have immediately noticed what set Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes apart from the pack. Instead of the light, Kendricks-influenced falsetto of Russell Thompkins Jr., the voice of the Blue Notes came from somewhere between its owners’ boots and his gut. If nobody had told you otherwise, you might have thought you were listening to David Ruffin on steroids. As it turned out, for a while nobody did tell us, and it was widely assumed by UK audiences that Teddy was actually Harold Melvin. There are a couple of different stories about how he (originally the drummer in the Blue Notes’ rhythm section) became the band’s lead singer. According to one tale, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who’d been trying to sign The Dells to their newly founded Philadelphia International Records label, encouraged Melvin to put Teddy up front because he sounded like Dells lead singer Marvin Junior, and if they couldn’t get the actual Dells, then they were going to create one of their own. The other story - the one they’ll use in the biopic - has Teddy leaping from behind his drum kit in the middle of a Blue Notes show, and grabbing the mic to the amazement of both his band and the audience.

Arguably more than the O’Jays even, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were the definitive act of the PIR era, largely due to Teddy’s voice, personality and charisma, and their hits rapidly began to dry up once he made the decision to go solo in 1976. From his 1977 solo debut and onwards into the 80s, he became a permanent fixture in the US r&b charts, managing to ride out the disco backlash and cementing his “Mr. Luva-Luva” persona to the extent that he could do a succession of “For Women Only” shows without alienating his male audience. There’s a great scene during one episode in Season 5 of Homicide: Life On The Street where Det. Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) is at home with his wife Barbara. Their marriage is on the outs, and as is often the case in crumbling relationships, they’re bickering over minor irritations. In this case, it’s the garish and somewhat tacky portrait of Teddy that Meldrick insists should take pride of place on the living room wall and which, it turns out, Barbara has always hated. But what’s interesting about the scene is how there’s no suggestion of anything unusual (beyond simple bad taste, that is) in a grown man hanging a picture of an r&b singer up in his front room.

Perhaps the reason for that is that Teddy personified a kind of undiluted, unapologetic, black masculinity that appealed to both genders. Women loved him, and although men may have envied his charisma, they also admired him for the classy, measured way he asserted his blackness without ever pandering to a mainstream white audience. Plus, those men were the direct beneficiaries of all Teddy's hard work on stage and on record whereas, as the man once memorably complained during an interview, he usually returned to his hotel room alone. Black comics like Eddie Murphy and Lenny Henry were able to lampoon his persona affectionately because they understood what he represented, but elsewhere that persona was reduced to cheeseball cliché and held up by many white rock critics as a shameful example of how far post-disco black pop culture had drifted from the radical ideals of the Black Panthers. All of which completely disregards Teddy’s fondness for socially conscious material throughout his career, as well as ignoring the genuinely subversive Garveyite politics that informed a significant proportion of Philadelphia International’s output during the 70s, even at the height of disco. Once it became public knowledge that his passenger on the night of the 1982 car accident that left him in a wheelchair was a transsexual nightclub performer, many felt that neither his image nor his voice would ever fully recover from the damage, but his core audience stayed characteristically loyal. Tiger Woods should be so lucky.

It’s that voice that he’ll be remembered for, of course – that rich, gritty baritone both mournful and declamatory, simultaneously pleading whilst bristling with righteous anger, able to ride the joyous rhythm of a song like The Love I Lost whilst remaining utterly convincing that he’d suffered the cruellest heartbreak. It never really regained its power after his accident, but it’s testament to the man’s spirit that he continued to record and perform for well over a decade after his 1984 comeback. His persona may have been easy meat for lazy parodists, but there was always a tenderness, warmth and likeability to Teddy that the ‘bedroom bully’ crassness of his present-day equivalents could never hope to convey. There are precious few true soul men left nowadays as it is. We ought to cherish the ones that are still around.

Sorry we lost you, Teddy.

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