NEW YORK (AP)—R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass, who had been one of the most electric and successful figures in music until a car crash 28 years ago left him in a wheelchair, has died of colon cancer. He was 59.
Pendergrass died Jan. 13 in suburban Philadelphia, where he had been hospitalized for months. The singer’s son, Teddy Pendergrass II, said his father underwent colon cancer surgery eight months ago and had “a difficult recovery.”
“To all his fans who loved his music, thank you,” his son said. “He will live on through his music.”
Pendergrass left a remarkable imprint on the music world as he ushered in a new era in R&B with his fiery, sensual and forceful brand of soul, and his ladies’ man image, burnished by his strikingly handsome looks.
Unlike the songs of many of today’s male R&B crooners, Pendergrass’ music bordered on eroticism without explicit lyrics or coarse language—just through the raw emotion in his voice.
He burst on the scene in 1970 as the lead for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in such hits as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” from the “Miss You” album, which was a classic, to later shine as a solo performer in “Close the Door,” “It Don’t Hurt Now,” “Love T.K.O.” and other hits. With the Blue Notes he was noted for his message music whereas as a solo artist it was more sexual even though he still mixed in message music.
The Philadelphia Sound was just as popular in the Black community as Motown or Stax yet didn’t get as much publicity outside the Black community. Their foundation was positive message music and Pendergrass was a key part of that.
“Turn Off the Lights” perhaps best represented the many moods of Pendergrass—tender and coaxing yet strong as the song reaches its climax.
Friend and longtime collaborator Kenny Gamble, of the renowned production duo Gamble & Huff, and owners of Philadelphia International, the label Pendergrass recorded on and who wrote most of his material said Pendergrass boasted “a great magnetism.”
“He was a great baritone singer, and he had a real smooth sound, but he had a real rough sound, too, when he wanted to exert power in his voice,” Gamble said.
Pendergrass was an international superstar and sex symbol, his career still climbing, when his Rolls-Royce hit a tree in 1982. He was 31. He was left paralyzed from the waist down and spent six months in the hospital.
He returned to recording the next year with the album “Love Language.” He continued to sing and recorded several more albums, receiving Grammy nominations. Perhaps his best-known hit after his crash was the inspirational song “Life is a Song Worth Singing.”
After 19 years, he even resumed performing at his own concerts in May 2001 with two sold-out shows in Atlantic City, N.J.
The accident took some of the signature power from his voice. The image of the strong, virile lover was replaced with one that drew sympathy. But instead of becoming bitter or depressed, Pendergrass created a new identity—that as a role model, Gamble said.
“He never showed me that he was angry at all about his accident,” Gamble said. “In fact, he was very courageous… He used to say something in his act in the wheelchair, ‘Don’t let the wheelchair fool you,’ because he still proclaimed he was a lover.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1950, Pendergrass got his break in the music business not with his voice but through his skill as a drummer. He met Harold Melvin, who was looking for replacement members for his group, the Blue Notes, and signed on to be the drummer.
Later, he became the lead singer of the group, which became known as Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The band started working with Gamble and Leon Huff and had signature hits in the early 1970s with “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “The Love I Lost” and “Wake Up Everybody.”
But Pendergrass had creative differences with Melvin and soon left for a solo career, according to his website. It was then he would become a sex symbol for the R&B genre, working women into a frenzy with hits such as “Only You” and concerts dedicated for ladies only.
“In his quiet moments, he probably did a lot of reflection. But I never saw him pity himself. He stayed busy,” Gamble said. “(But) I feel that he’s in a better place now…He doesn’t have to go through that pain or whatever he was going through anymore.”
(Ulish Carter contributed to this story.)