April 1724, 1997
By Neil Gladstone
Teddy Pendergrass' 25-year career has solidified him as Philadelphia legend. Raised in the inner city, he first made his mark fronting Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, singing such top hits as "I Miss You" and "If you Don't Know Me By Now." He left the group in 1976 for a solo career and by the early '80s was one of the top male R? attractions, belting out sensual ballads to throngs of screaming fans at "For Women Only" concerts. Then, in March of 1982, a near-fatal car crash left him paralyzed. After arduous rehabilitation, he returned triumphantly with the 1984 album Love Language. In 1988, he was back on the top of the charts with Joy. His new singing style still boasted all of yesteryear's smoldering baritone, but was more sober and less macho. Just recently, he returned to the stage in a 1995 revival of the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short To Box With God. His just-released album, You and I (Complex Records), features some of his sexiest material ever as well as several numbers that ruminate on relationship problems. The singer is currently working on a Christmas album and finishing up his autobiography, which will be published early next year. On the phone from his home in Narberth, Pendergrass' husky voice is a little soft and almost groggy. Just starting a round of interviews to promote his new album, he sounds distant for most of the conversation and annoyed by the more invasive questions.
Why did you decide to do Your Arms Too Short to Box with God?
It was about time I did something to work on my craft and test myself. And test the audience to see if they still desired to see me. To see if I'm still desirable.
Were you concerned that they wouldn't be?
Sure, things are not like they were. Put yourself in my shoes. You would have to question everything. Sometimes people change and tastes change audiences like one artist one day and another artist another day. My job as an artist is to go out there and see if I still have the tools to do my job.
Did you intend to return to live performance?
I had a concert tour ready to go, but I felt this was the best situation for me to get involved with. Going out on my own would have cost me a lot of money. This was a chance to test the audience and test myself on someone else's dime.
Do you think you'll go out on a concert tour now?
We're still contemplating it. I was ready to go before I did the play. But there are many things to consider.
In one of the pieces I read, Stephanie Mills [who co-starred in Your Arms Too Short To Box With God] said your voice is stronger than ever. Do you agree?
I have times when I think it's better and other times when I think it's not. I guess the more work I do and the more I sing, the stronger it gets, especially in live performance.
It's the first play you've ever been in. Did you do any acting training?
Nope, I don't think it took acting skills for me to do the part because it was dealing with a subject that is very close to me Jesus Christ.
I heard you wanted to do the play before finishing your autobiography so the book would have a happy ending?
I wanted the ending to be celebratory and I wanted the ending to have me on stage.
Were you shocked by the recent passing of Harold Melvin?
I guess I'm not shocked by anything anymore. I know he had been ill for a little while. But none of us are in control. I was saddened to hear it. But I don't think I was shocked. The older you get, the more things happen to you the more you realize that anything can happen.
When was the last time you saw Harold?
I don't want to get into a conversation about him.
Did you go into recording You and I with a different direction than your last album, A Little More Magic?
A Little More Magic was more or less somebody else's idea. I was the executive producer, co-producer and co-writer for You and I. It was more of my ideas. A Little More Magic was nice, but it wasn't what I wanted to do.
The first five songs on the album deal heavily with relationship problems, do they reflect at all on your personal life?
No, I'm an adult and I am married. But it doesn't reflect what I'm going through. I try not to wear my heart on my sleeve in public. I'm 47 years old and I've lived life long enough to know that there are problems that people get.
Some of the later songs on the album get more sexual and steamy...
Oh, you say the first five [songs] I could relate to. Why wouldn't I be experiencing what's more sexual in my lyrics?
I was going to ask you about your personal reflection on those songs as well.
I experience and have experienced all of it.
In the press release you mention that writing the lyrics to "Give It To Me" pushed you to the limit of how sexually blunt you could be. Why?
I'm shyer than most people would probably think I am.
How does Philadelphia fare as a wheelchair-accessible city?
Very bad. Philadelphia is an old city and there aren't a whole lot of people who are doing a whole lot to make their establishments wheelchair accessible. I don't do a lot of business in office buildings so I don't know about their facilities, but certain places that I go aren't very accessible. There is a kind of sadness in going to places and not being able to access them. People should be more conscious.
Have you done any activism for people in wheelchairs?
That's not what I do. I have done some in the past, but I do it at a different level, such as going in front of a government subcommittee and speaking to them.
Is there any misconception about people in wheelchairs that particularly bothers you?
Other than that we're incapable of seeing? That bothers me terribly. I think we're capable of doing an awful lot if given the opportunity.