A Teddy Pendergrass Primer

On September 30th 2021 » By Amileah Sutliff

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VMP is thrilled to feature Teddy Pendergrass’ Life is a Song Worth Singing as our Classics Record of the Month in October 2021. The album is the Quiet Storm R&B icon’s second solo album, and the release that solidified his rightful throne in solo superstardom, which you can read more about in the album’s Listening Notes.

In 1970, before Teddy Pendergrass was the Teddy Pendergrass — the heartthrob whose suave, silk-smooth croon established him as a swoon-inducing mainstay on airwaves far and wide — he was recruited by Harold Melvin himself to play drums in his rising Philadelphia International Records soul vocal group, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.

It wasn’t long before the group clocked his just-rough-enough baritone and recognized his vocal ability for what it could be: dazzling and fame-worthy. He took center stage as the group’s lead singer, eventually breaking off into a fruitful solo career responsible for classics like Life Is a Song Worth Singing. Here, we’ve compiled a highlights reel of essential further listening — all worthy of some premium silk sheets and a nice bottle of bubbly — to contextualize and expand your listening experience.

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ Black & Blue (1973)

There’s both power and an endearing innocence in Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ first few albums. But by this third album, you can really hear the group finding their groove. This is, at least in large part, due to Teddy’s obvious vocal confidence across the record; this is the sound of a young man, just 23 years old at the time, stepping into his gift and feeling every note. The album’s enduring hits like “The Love I Lost” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Your Love Back)” are as driven by Pendergrass’ all-out vocal swagger as they are the upbeat drum arrangements.

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ Wake Up Everybody (1975)

Composed and produced by PIR powerhouse duo Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff at the group’s commercial peak, Wake Up Everybody was the final Blue Notes album to feature Teddy Pendergrass as the lead singer before he left to pursue his solo career. With its opening title track, “Wake Up Everybody,” and uptempo ballad “To Be Free to Be Who We Are,” it features socially conscious messaging and string arrangements that feel like a warm embrace, snuggly complementing Pendergrass’ vocal tone. It also contains the original version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” which was covered by singer Thelma Houston in 1976 and again by British synth-pop duo The Communards in 1986.

This record is featured in our recent iteration of VMP Anthology, The Story of Philadelphia International Records, which you can learn more about and is available for purchase here.

Teddy Pendergrass (1977)

Building on his already-established legacy from his time in Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass’ self-titled debut solo album was, creatively and commercially, a smash right out of the gates. He remained on PIR, and even tapped into Gamble & Huff’s sure-fire production brilliance. The record hit No. 17 on the Billboard 200, and No. 5 on the R&B chart and went Platinum. Hits like tauntingly upbeat “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and melancholy-yet-powerful ballad “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me” have remained staples in his catalogue since their release. More importantly, the record proved to any remaining skeptics that Pendergrass was destined for a new level of stardom that the solo spotlight could offer him.

Teddy (1979)

As bold, slick and flirtatious as the album cover itself, Teddy picks up right where Life Is a Song Worth Singing left off, featuring bedroom ballad classics like “Turn off the Lights” and “All I Need Is You.” A favorite in his catalogue, the album was nominated for Favorite Soul/R&B Album at the American Music Awards in both 1980 and 1981 (Life Is a Song Worth Singing was nominated the previous year, in 1978). Even the self-pitying, heartbroken lyrics of “I’ll Never See Heaven” again sound soft and romantic through the filter of Teddy’s gentle voice and those soft-to-the-touch string arrangements.

Live! Coast to Coast (1979)

It’s not until you listen to a live recording of Pendergrass performing, like the one that comprises Live! Coast to Coast, that it strikes you, in totality, what a vocal talent he was. Even in a live setting, he had a natural mesmerizing balance: rough, but impossibly smooth; all-out, but relaxed; unrestrained, but nuanced. On Coast to Coast, among a set of his finest hits, he also performs a rapid-fire medley of his greatest hits in the group. The recording is also relatively unedited, showcasing his warm, loveable personality in stage banter and transitions — a personality that seems to inform all of his performances, whether live or in the studio. “OK, Teddy, what is your ultimate goal as a man?” an interviewer asks him on the closing track, “Live Interview.” He responds, “I believe my ultimate goal is to take all that life has to give, and give all I have back to life, and to be at peace with myself and the creator.”

TP (1980)

Ushering in a new decade with even more ultra-polished production, his 1980 album TP is rich with steamy duets with Stephanie Mills, like “Feel the Fire” and “Take Me In Your Arms Tonight.” It also contains one of his most cherished single, “Love T.K.O.,” which went on to be covered by Hall & Oates, Bette Midler, Regina Belle, The Nylons and Debbie Harry — none of whom ever quite matched Pendergrass’ effortless and seductive verve. While his golden era was undoubtedly found nestled in the soul scene of the 1970s, TP proved Pendergrass had more to give beyond that decade, and he continued to produce strong work well into the ’90s.

In 1982, not long after the album’s release, he was involved in a car accident and suffered a spinal cord injury resulting in paraplegia. He founded the Teddy Pendergrass Educational/Occupational Alliance for the Disabled, and after he passed, his widow, Joan Pendergrass, carried on his legacy and advocacy, founding the Teddy and Joan Pendergrass Foundation, which “focuses on assisting individuals with spinal cord injuries (SCI) to achieve their maximum potential in various areas of life.”

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Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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