Teddy Pendergrass, the Philadelphia soul singer whose husky, potent baritone was one definition of R&B seduction in the 1970s but whose career was transformed in 1982 when he was severely paralyzed in an auto accident, died on Wednesday night in Bryn Mawr, Pa. He was 59.
His death was confirmed by his publicist, Lisa Barbaris, who said Mr. Pendergrass had been treated for colon cancer since August at Bryn Mawr Hospital and had suffered many complications.
As the lead singer for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and in a solo career in which he sold millions of albums, Mr. Pendergrass brought gospel dynamics to bedroom vows in songs like “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “The Love I Lost,” “Close the Door,” “Turn Off the Lights” and “Love T.K.O.”
His performances rose from breathy whispers to gutsy exhortations, making his voice the deeper, more aggressive counterpart to the styles of 1970s soul men like Al Green and Marvin Gaye. It was the flagship sound for Philadelphia International Records, riding lush strings and big-band disco from the producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Philadelphia International’s songwriters provided Mr. Pendergrass with material that was forthright but never crude, promising nothing more explicit than a back rub.
“Teddy had that big, booming baritone voice, but he was a tender man,” Mr. Huff said in a telephone interview Thursday. “He was very lovable. You could hear it in his music.”
By the late ’70s, Mr. Pendergrass’s concerts — some of them presented for women only — drew screaming, ecstatic crowds. Women would fling teddy bears and lingerie onstage. Mr. Gamble called Mr. Pendergrass “the black Elvis.”
Mr. Pendergrass was a hitmaker for a decade. Then, on March 18, 1982, on a winding road in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Mr. Pendergrass’s Rolls-Royce smashed into a highway divider and a tree, a result of either brake failure or a faulty electric system that had disabled the power steering. Spinal cord injuries left him paralyzed from the chest down at 31.
But after extensive physical therapy he resumed his recording career and had Top 10 rhythm and blues hits and gold albums into the ’90s. His voice was less forceful but still recognizable, as he substituted nuance for lung power. Though he could no longer tour, a worldwide television audience saw him sing at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia in 1985, and he returned occasionally to the stage in the 1990s and 2000s.
Theodore DeReese Pendergrass Jr. was born on March 26, 1950, in Kingstree, S.C., and moved to Philadelphia as an infant with his mother, Ida Pendergrass. She survives him, along with his wife, Joan; his children, Teddy Pendergrass II, Trisha Pendergrass and La Donna Pendergrass; and four grandchildren.
Growing up in North Philadelphia, Mr. Pendergrass was steeped in both gospel and soul music. He was 2 years old when he first stood on a chair to sing at a storefront Holiness church, and with his mother’s encouragement he often attended church seven days a week. But he was also drawn to the Uptown Theater, which presented top performers on the R&B circuit. When he was a teenager his mother gave him a set of drums, and he taught himself to play them.
Mr. Pendergrass dropped out of high school to become a musician, working with R&B and doo-wop groups. In 1969 he joined Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a vocal group that had been working in Philadelphia since the mid-1950s.
He soon moved from the drums to lead vocals. Mr. Huff said he had noticed Mr. Pendergrass while preparing for a Blue Notes recording session, when Mr. Pendergrass was still the band’s drummer. “We was just messing around in the rehearsal room,” Mr. Huff said. “I heard that voice, and my ears perked up. That rich baritone voice was just ringing through.”
Signed to Philadelphia International, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had a string of hits in the ’70s with Mr. Pendergrass singing lead, including “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” in 1972, “The Love I Lost” in 1973 and “Bad Luck” and “Wake Up Everybody,” both in 1975. But there was increasing friction between Mr. Pendergrass and Mr. Melvin, and in 1975 Mr. Pendergrass left the group.
His solo career was an immediate success. His first solo album, “Teddy Pendergrass,” released in 1977, sold more than a million copies, and so did the two that followed it, “Life Is a Song Worth Singing” in 1978 and “Teddy” in 1979. A concert album, “Teddy Live! Coast to Coast,” went gold, selling more than half a million copies, followed by another million-seller, “TP,” in 1980, and the gold “It’s Time for Love” in 1981. Mr. Pendergrass’s singles were fixtures in the R&B Top 10.
At his concerts for women, audience members were given chocolate teddy bear-shaped lollipops to lick. In later years, Mr. Pendergrass would say he was slightly embarrassed by those shows.
“As outgoing as I am, I’m still a country boy,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002. “It was complimentary, but it was also hard to handle.”
After the car crash and physical therapy, Mr. Pendergrass resumed his recording career with “Love Language,” a gold album that included an early appearance by Whitney Houston on the album’s R&B hit single, “Hold Me.”
With his 1985 album “Workin’ It Back,” Mr. Pendergrass began writing some of his own songs. His 1988 album “Joy” went gold, and its title track became a No. 1 R&B hit. “Voodoo,” a single from his 1993 album “A Little More Magic,” was nominated for a Grammy Award. (Though he was nominated more than once for the award, he never received one.)
Mr. Pendergrass toured in 1996 in a revival of the musical “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” singing “Truly Blessed,” a song about him that had been added to the show. He used the same title for a 1991 album and for his 1998 autobiography, written with Patricia Romanowski.
In 2000 he sang “Wake Up Everybody” at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Two years later he performed a concert tour, singing from his wheelchair. In 2008 “I Am Who I Am,” a musical based on Mr. Pendergrass’s life story, was performed by the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago.
Mr. Pendergrass became an advocate for people with spinal cord injuries, forming the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a nonprofit group, in 1998 to help them. In 2007, 25 years after his accident, he appeared at “Teddy at 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope and Possibilities,” a benefit concert for the group in Philadelphia.
Mr. Pendergrass’s romantic approach was a touchstone for younger generations of R&B Romeos, from Gerald Levert to Maxwell (who did his own ladies-only concerts), and his music has been sampled by rappers including Ghostface Killah and Kanye West. Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, from the hip-hop group the Roots (formed in Philadelphia), responded to news of Mr. Pendergrass’s death on Twitter declaring, “Soul will never be the same.”
- March, 26, 1950
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- January, 13, 2010
- Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Cause of Death
- respiratory failure
- West Laurel Hill Cemetery
- Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania