October 10-16, 2002
In 1976, the sacred, sexy growl of Philadelphia’s Teddy Pendergrass was everywhere. Having left Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes as the gravelly baritone lead on the Philly International classics “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “The Love I Lost” and “Bad Luck,” Pendergrass came up with five LPs of elastic gospel soul most sensual that made him the first black male singer to record five consecutive multiplatinum albums. Though history tells that he was felled in March 1982 by a near-fatal auto accident on Lincoln Drive and left wheelchair-bound with paralysis from the chest down, you wouldn’t know it from his output: five CDs since his accident, an autobiography (Truly Blessed) and a tour with the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short To Box With God. All that was missing was live performance -- a barrier he bridged in May 2001 in Atlantic City, and on Valentine’s Day 2002 for the recording of a new live CD, From Teddy With Love. Now, not only will he perform his first Philly shows in 20 years, he will accept the decree of Oct. 12 as “Teddy Pendergrass Day,” and host a gala the night before to benefit the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, which aids people with spinal cord injuries. I found Pendergrass healthy, extremely busy and bluntly matter-of-fact at his Philadelphia home.
City Paper: How did touring with Arms Too Short prepare you for your own gigs?
Teddy Pendergrass: I truly believe that I'm doing what I'm doing now because I was able to test the waters with the play. It was a vehicle to challenge my ability to deal with the stringency and discipline of touring, a life I've known since 18, but one I didn't know for certain I could succeed at now. I'm healthy as a bull, but it's fragile. Things can occur. I'm not one to put myself in harm's way.
CP: Was there an initial fear that perhaps you wouldn't or couldn't represent yourself in song?
TP: You're not a doctor and this is not a hospital interview. But. The whole damned thing is a challenge. Not just about my voice. Everything. Things you couldn't begin to imagine. I try to understand all that I can do -- from point A to point B -- to have a productive lifestyle without pushing myself too much. The purpose isn't about anyone else. It's selfish. It's about me, about how I can function at a level I'm always comfortable with. Satisfying other people is nothing to shake a stick at. Don't get me wrong. That's a concern: What will they think of seeing me? But I already know what people think: I played in front of 90,000 people at Live Aid. I deal with people every day. I see how people react. But I have to prove to Teddy what I can achieve first. It's about how I need to be in regard to my artistic process.
CP: Any moments of your solo past you hold dearest?
TP: No favorite moments. I've always done what I believe in, what Teddy believes is best for him. That's why I left the Blue Notes. I didn't think I was better or bigger than Harold. I'm very proactive, accustomed to struggle and have, wholeheartedly, a belief in myself. I believe in the spirit that guides me. That's how I function. If it don't fit I don't force it. I do what I think I should do. Like change. Like seasons. I thought I should move on. I thought I should begin to do songs like I would come to do. End of story.
CP: On the live album, you still do "Turn Off the Lights" and "Close the Door." How has the erotically charged nature of those songs changed for you? With age, with circumstance, with experience?
TP: I won't answer that. What I will do is I'll let audiences answer that. How it affects me doesn't matter. I don't mean that facetiously. Every listener has his own interpretation, every show a different feel. I may know now more about how to interpret an idea. I embrace that.
CP: You're very blunt. Direct. Do you consider yourself a good business person?
TP: Absolutely. It's not ever about turning anybody off. The fact is there is a means to an end or an end to a means. I don't want to go fishing. I've been doing this a long time.
CP: Is that what made your book so solid, so cathartic?
TP: More than cathartic, it was honest. Me with me. I wanted it to be understood by the masses without pushing things down anyone's throat. It's like my songs. You have a four-minute framework to tell people how you feel, to tell them a story, beginning to end, with a framework. It's not poetry.
CP: Having nothing to do with your accident or the fact that you're an ordained minister -- do you feel holier now, closer to God, as if you lead a more sacred life?
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TP: Holier, no. By no means am I a backstreet Bible-carrying preacher. I don't mean this negatively but I'm not Al Green trying to split hairs. I don't want to be called Reverend Pendergrass today and Teddy tomorrow. That's not my course. I'm not comparing myself to Al, so please don't write that I am. He's an incredible artist. It's just that when someone needs to do A and then B, it looks as if he's unsure. I know what I want to do and who I am. I have always been a spiritual person, never not been spiritual. My belief is who I am, how I was raised, that's Theodore. So holier, no. But I certainly have a firsthand view of what faith... can do. I also have firsthand knowledge of what life can do, where you have no control, where you are subject to all that life can do.
CP: When you're onstage, singing your heart out, is there ever a moment when you forget the disability, or is it something that's inherent in the expression of your song?
TP: No, I never forget. I live it 24-7. It'd be ludicrous to think otherwise. What happens is that I have a place that I can put it. I know what the limitations are. I have an idea of the ups and downs because I've had 19 years to deal with it and do it differently.
CP: You've been doing shows off and on. What makes now the best time to finally bring it all home?
TP: I don't think there's a "why now." All things in time, you know? It's like a man or woman making a cake: If you take it out of the oven, or if it's a different kind of cake, it's different timing. Now is a good time. Why wait 19 years? Wasn't ready. Why take the offer to play Trump Taj Mahal? It was the right time. Now I'm very comfortable bringing it home.
CP: What does the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance do?
TP: It's a way for me to give people with spinal cord injuries opportunities: employment and educational. We want people with these injuries to have positive productive lives, comforts and pleasures -- so that they're not just in nursing homes. It's one thing to be disabled. It's another thing to not have a life. I've been very lucky to be able to maintain a lifestyle. I'm not saying I don't have obstacles or pain but overall I have a wonderful life. A lot of people don't have those lives because they don't have the opportunity.
CP: Do you hear the sound of your passion, your influence, in any of today's artists?
TP: I'm going to plead the fifth. It's like a painting. Picasso did things his way, Matisse another. That people don't do what I do doesn't make them less valid. At the same token, no one can fill my niche.
Teddy Pendergrass will play Sat., Oct. 12, 8 p.m. and Sun., Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m., $67.50, The Keswick Theatre, Easton Rd. and Keswick Ave., Glenside, 215-572-7650. Mayor John Street will join Pendergrass Fri., Oct. 11, for a press conference to declare Sat., Oct. 12, “Teddy Pendergrass Day” in Philadelphia. On Friday night, an invitation-only fundraising dinner will be held in the city. Proceeds from this event will benefit the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance. Visit www.tpalliance.org for more information.