Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Teddy Pendergrass: The Unbearable Heaviness of a Love TKO

By Barry Michael Cooper 

"Teddy was the spirit and voice of his times. No voice better expressed the aspirations of late '70's Harlem."
--Gary Harris.
Twitter, 14 Jan 2010

Twenty-ten has roared up the on ramp of our lives like a ghostly metallic hearse, looking for the last exit to oblivion. The first psychic toll booth flashed a horrifically blinking snapshot of the Apocalypse; where a 7.0 tectonic plate shift in Port au Prince, Haiti, may have cut down hundreds of thousands of lives.
The second detoured us with the news that legendary American crooner, Teddy Pendergrass--the original Philadelphia International--died from colon cancer. He was 59 years old.

Both world shattering events took place on Wednesday, 13 January 2010. GOD Help us.

These are days that make some want to pray, and I been prayin' a lot (no offense to Senator Reid, but grievous situations sometimes brings out the Negro dialect in me). Praying to GOD for HIS Mercy on the dear folks of Haiti, praying for the grieving Pendergrass family, friends, and fans, and even praying for the discordant chattering class of the Posse Comment-Haters. Maledictorians like Crackhead Rush Limbaugh, a.k.a., Pookie; the white, Republican crackhead with a multi-million-dollar microphone.
Limbaugh (who, after being divinely spared from his own Kierkergaardian personal earthquake, a heart scare, which sounds like a non sequitur, because we all know Rush doesn't have a heart), both discouraged his listeners from donating to Haiti's Relief Fund, and venomously opined that President Obama's instantaneous response to the Haitian disaster was an attempt to validate his Black man passport in the African-African American community. Hmmm: I wonder if a self-professed Christian like Rush Limbaugh, ever came across this passage in Proverbs 18:7 "A fool's mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul."

And then there's Pat "Elmer Gantry" Robertson, a man of the soiled cloth, who pathetically assumed that Haiti's present woes are the wages for a demonic deal signed to expedite their liberation from French colonialism. Wow; really Pat? What part of the Bible did you glean that from? Old or New Testament?
Mr. Robertson's neighborhood is populated with right wing Pharisees choking on hypocritical dogma; men who seem to be very familiar with Faustian deals, because they see the same Mephistophelesian partner grinning over their shoulders, and staring back at them in the mirror. 

Unlike these two wolves in sheep's clothing, the Bible instructs believers in Romans 12:15 to "rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep" and right now, teardrops are exploding all over the world, like wet, silent bombs of immeasurable mourning.
It's in times of seemingly insurmountable grief, that life becomes a song worth singing, to reference the title of a popular Teddy Pendergrass song. Teddy's music was infused with life; both the sweaty carnality of the bedroom, and the charitable inspiration of global brotherhood. 

Teddy Pendergrass--like his musically ideological twin Marvin Gaye--was a socio-cultural avatar for African American men in the '70s. Not that Teddy's songs were scripted with lyrics of violent revolt: Wake Up Everybody--produced by the prolific team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the men who created the Philadelphia International powerhouse--was a socially conscious anthem about racial unity and responsibility in the face of an increasingly apathetic Great Society.
However, it was Teddy's imposing mien that spoke volumes: from the raw silk of his tenor-baritone, to the luminescent mahogany of his Mandinka sheen, to the meticulous outline of his woolly beard, Teddy Pendergrass represented Black Men who demanded respect and dignity in a racially transgressive American landscape. 
Teddy was the proxy for men pummeled by the spectral jackhammer of slavery, Jim Crow, and the inchoate bona fides of civil rights. Like Marving Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass used the love song as a form of revolution: and even if the coup d' 'etat began in the bedroom (Close the door, turn off the lights...turn em off!), Teddy's image as a powerful black man had blanketed the psyche of modern pop music.

Like Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass was a church boy who carried the fervor of the ecclesiastical into the secular. 
Boy preachers who became sex teachers. Besides growing up in the church, Teddy was also a musician (he began as a drummer for the Cadillacs, which became Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes). Slowly but surely, Teddy Pendergrass moved from the kick and snare at the back of the stage, to be the point-man up front for the Bluenotes; this was insurrection for sure, because he was not Harold Melvin, the name above the marquee.

That led to a struggle for power, which resulted in Teddy leaving the group. In 1977, Teddy launched a solo career with a debut album titled Teddy Pendergrass.
I remember that album distinctly, for several different reasons. To begin with, it was the first time I saw a man wear lip gloss, and never once questioned his sexuality. Teddy also wore an impeccable rubberized cotton raincoat, similar to one that I had seen in the pages of a 1977 issue of G.Q. He also sported a white silk scarf, and debuted his famous beard (which I later learned was de rigueur for African-American men in Philadelphia, which was probably an outgrowth of the powerful influence of the Islamic faith in Philly's black community). 

As the legendary record exec and influential writer-blogger Gary Harris tweeted on his Twitter page a day after Pendergrass's death, "Teddy was the spirit and voice of his times. No voice better expressed the aspirations of late '70's Harlem."  Indeed, T.P. repaved the intersection of power and flyness; almost overnight, Teddy became the president of the Fly Black Man Society.

Most importantly, my high school buddy, a dude named Garfield, called me the night of the show when Teddy opened for the Isley Brothers at Madison Square Garden. Garfield had a relative that worked as a housekeeper at the Isley estate in Teaneck, N.J., and he was gifted with free tickets to see the show. The consensus among people I knew, was that Teddy was going to be overshadowed by the mighty Ronald Isley and his siblings. 

But Garfield--the guy who, after class one day at Charles Evans Hughes, explained to me just how magma the BMW Bavaria was, when we went into the showroom around the corner from our school--was adamant. "Barry," Garfield raved, "When Teddy sang, 'The Whole Town's Laughing At Me,' women were screaming and crying. The scramblin' kids was on their feet, cheering him on. Teddy stole the show."

I went on 125th Street and bought the album the next day. And I didn't shave for two weeks, so I could grow a beard, too.

Teddy Pendergrass was a movement. Guys like myself, wanted to dress like him. Navy blue double breasted blazers, gray pleated garbardine slacks with the cuffs, black suede slip-on loafers with either the gold chain or golf-shoe kiltie on the vamp. If there was a midnight boat ride to Bear Mountain, NY, we added the white skipper cap with the gold embossed anchor crest. As my friend Jeff Redd--a terrific singer in his own right--says, "Teddy Pendergrass was cleaner than the Board of Health."

Teddy Pendergrass had so much admiration in Harlem in the '70s, that Gene Pendergrass--who was either Teddy's cousin or brother and was a dead ringer for him--one of the announcers for the games at the Holcombe Rucker Summer Basketball League on 155th and 8th Avenue, used to sign autographs, and scoop all the gorgeous women who sat in the stands watching human anti-gravity machines like Julius "Dr. J." Erving, Nate "Tiny" Archibald, and local legends like Carlton Green and Frank Streety. Women who daydreamed about Teddy all day long: Come on and go with me/come on over/to my place... 

There is also Harlem folklore that the concert promoter and Lenox Avenue bon vivant Sparky Martin, influenced Teddy to don the cutting edge western gear--cowboy hat and Montana rancher shearling jacket--on the cover of the 1978 release, Life Is A Song Worth Singing.
There may be some truth to that, because I remember seeing Sparky in the late 70s, standing in front of Smalls Paradise on 135th and 7th Avenue, dressed in a cowboy hat, leather vest, jeans, leather chaps, and lizard-skinned cowboy boots. Be that as it may, in 1978, the concrete strip of 116th Street was crowded with Harlem urban cowboys from Lenox to Manhattan Avenue--two years before the Travolta movie--adorned in shearling car coats, (or bubble goose down jackets), Luchessi and Dan Tana cowboy boots, Lee Jeans, and ten gallon black Stetsons. Once again, Teddy Pendergrass became the arbiter of style and taste.

What will we remember about Teddy Pendergrass? Will it be the personification of true machismo star power, so potent that Teddy could command a series of "Ladies Only" concerts, which sold out from coast-to-coast, a feat that hasn't been duplicated since? Will it be him making white women squeal with ecstasy on a 3 September 1979 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, when Teddy sang an inspired and impromptu duet with the blind country singer Ronnie Milsap? Will it be Lily Tomlin's sly--if not racially awkward--homage to Teddy, when she hosted Saturday Night Live (airdate: 22 January 1983), as the bearded, three-piece-suited love man "Pervis Hawkins", who belted out "his" sultry "Love Message"?
Will it be that fateful night on 16 March 1982, when Teddy Pendergrass became paralyzed from the waist down in a terrifying, life-altering car accident on Wissahickon Drive in Philadelphia?
The brakes in his Rolls Royce Silver Spirit malfunctioned, and Teddy lost control of his $250,000 dream machine, which hit a guard rail and careened into oncoming traffic. The story became more lurid when his passenger--a transsexual cabaret performer named John "Tenika" Watson--walked away nearly unscathed. Cruel jokes and suspicions about Teddy's secret desires flourished, but Teddy Pendergrass's inner courage in the midst of physiological and emotional turmoil--seemed to remind the public of his strength and determination to not only survive, but live a full life. And Teddy spread the good will; he created the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance; his beloved organization that helps those suffering from spinal chord injuries.

One day after the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday--and a few days before one of the greatest purveyor's of Soul Music that ever lived is laid to rest in The City of Brotherly Love--what I will remember most about Teddy Pendergrass, is his construct of a "50/50" love. In any relationship, be it the micro of a couple on a first date and/or the diamond anniversary of a marriage, or the macro of a nation's citizenship speaking to the powers that be, folks are hungry for equality. Teddy was trying to tell us something: we all need compassion as our latest, and greatest inspiration to survive a "Love TKO". These are days that makes one want to pray, and pray without ceasing. We all want to love; we just want to make sure that when we do, somebody will love us back.
Be sure to pick up my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.


michael a. gonzales said...

Wonderful, as usual. It's so funny, because I think the reason I always wanted a beard was because of Teddy and Barry Gibb.

vincent said...

Only you or Mike Gonzales could do a Philly - Harlem tie in! ... Sparky did take credit for Teddy's look, but note; at Gene Pendergrass' funeral several years ago, we were shocked to find out that his last name wasn't Pendergrass, nor was he related to Teddy, he just looked like him. Maybe they'll get a chance to rap about it in the after life!
..................................... (VINCENT DAVIS)

Bmc said...

@Michael Gonzeles: Mike thanks for your kind words, and yeah, throw Mr. Stayin' Alive himself in there, for the reason why Harlem dudes wanted to wear a beard...

Bmc said...

@Vincent Davis: Vincent, thanks for the kind words, and the great info on Gene Pendergrass, or whatever his name was! Yo, that like a great twist at the end of the movie, and Gene milked the TP look for all it was worth at the Rucker, and all over Harlem, lol!

Anita C. McCants said...

I enjoyed reading this article. It took me back down memory lane. I had no idea how much influence Teddy Pendergrass had on men in the 70's. Very insightful.

Bmc said...

@Anita C McCants: Thank you for your kind words, Thinking about Teddy and the impact of his music brought back some great memories for me, too.

Elaine Suverne said...

Hi, I'm in a Teddy Pendergrass crush that will not go away and I'm reading up on him and eating up all the info on him I can get. Will buy his book , Truly Blessed , this week. I watched the 'When Somebody Loves You Back' concert video where he kisses 3 ladies on youtube and I FELL HARD. Your article is extremely well-written and you have tidbits that the Unsung and other documentaries don't have. I sure appreciate you bringing me closer to Teddy! I'm subscribing to your feeds!

Bmc said...

@Elaine Suverne: Thank you for your kind words Elaine. I appreciate it. GOD Bless you.

Sheldon Taylor said...

Great piece..had to read again. Your story about the TP-Isley Bros concert is confirmed by TP in his book Truly Blessed. At the time the Isleys were red-hot. And TP is riding the wave of two gold albums. Big bro Kelly Isley smugly offers Teddy an opening spot on the tour with a 10k pay day "the most you'll ever make for a date". During the concert run, Teddy finds out his debut album has just gone platinum and Kelly Isley is backstage hating (imagine the Prince/Morris Day backstage scene in Purple Rain). They have a show in Rhode Island but cancel the gig pissing Teddy off. He makes a deal with the promoter to let him do the show w/o the Isley Bros. It sells out he pockets 20k and he never opens for anyone ever again! ("I muttered screw you to Kelly Isley wherever he might be and never opened for anyone or answered to anyone ever again")

Bmc said...

@Sheldon Taylor - I Thank GOD and I thank you my brother, for your most kind and encouraging words.