Eugoogly: Teddy Pendergrass
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 14, 2010
“You ever heard of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes? [….] Some things just always play well. A little ‘old school’ is what this team needs.” – Stan Ross, Mr. 3000
Not that I was really the biggest Teddy Pendergrass fan or anything. Even if I saw him looking like he does in the picture above walking around his home streets of Bryn Mawr, PA (about ten minutes from where I grew up, incidentally), I wouldn’t have recognized him, unless I was just confusing him with Baron Davis. And when it came to his solo career, I only know one song, and that’s only because that song was sample by a 90s hip-hop song I like more. Still, I felt legitimately bummed about Teddy’s death from colon cancer when I saw it in the news today–moreso even than the demise yesterday of the more recently-newsworthy Jay Reatard. Part of it’s the hometown connection–when it comes to forming allegiances with the Philly music scene, it’s really a choice between The Roots, G. Love and Special Sauce, Man Man and 70s soul, a decision that never really kept me up at nights. Part of it’s the fact that he inspired my favorite line in Twista’s “Slow Jamz”: “And when I come over and bend ya ass / You be bumpin’ Teddy Pendergrass.” And part of it is Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
You saw this happen a lot in the 60s, mostly in garage rock-type bands, where a band would be named after a member of the group that wasn’t the lead singer. The Dave Clark Five. The Spencer Davis Group. Paul Revere and the Raiders. None of the titular band members was actually the frontman–usually they were just the guy who formed the band and didn’t want to go back to the anonymity of being the drummer or keyboardist or whatever lurking in the shadows. (Of course, in the case of PR&TRs, when you have a member of the band named Paul Revere and you’re thinking about using a revolution-era visual gimmick, you pretty much have no choice to name the band after the guy, even if he’s just the organist). You didn’t see it happen so much in soul, but an exception to this was Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, of which Melvin was just one of the backup singers, but who apparently still had naming rights from having formed the group well before the arrival of the group’s true leading light–Mr. Pendergrass.
I wonder how many people know this today–I didn’t for the longest time–but Pendergrass was the voice behind all of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ signature hits, and they were simply some of the best soul songs of the 70s. Quiet storm classics like “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” proto-disco floorburners like “The Love I Lost,” socially conscious heart-tuggers like “Wake Up Everybody”–a resume matched maybe only by The Spinners and Hall & Oates (yes, they count) when talking about the greats of classic Philly Soul. Pendergrass’s voice was an absolutely mighty one, continually pressing his vocal chords to the point of complete dissolution, but always coming just that smallest fraction away from actually cracking, such a physical and emotional investment whenever he sang that frankly it’s sort of amazing he lasted as long as he did. Listen to “The Love I Lost” below, my personal favorite of his and one of the best songs of the 70s. He carries a full two-and-a-half minutes of the Blue Notes repeatedly droning “I lost it / Sorry I lost it” with his vocal ad-libbing, and the thing is never less than completely transfixing. (Of course, it never hurts to have the sweet strains of Gamble & Huff production in the background, but they never found a better conductor for their soul symphonies than Pendergrass).
And for those 90s East Coast hip-hop fans out there, the song I was referring to earlier was Ahmad’s unfortunately forgotten nostalgia-fest “Back in the Day,” which prudently lifts from Pendergrass’s solo hit “Love TKO.” Both are worth checking out if you’ve never heard before.
R.I.P. Teddy Pendergrass, 1950-2010