Theodore "Teddy" DeReese Pendergrass Sr. (March 26, 1950 - January 13, 2010
Soul City has suffered a loss that we will not soon forget. The incomparable Teddy "Bear" Pendergrass, the megawatt headliner from the Philadelphia based Gamble & Huff constellation of stars died at 9:50 PM on Wednesday evening in a Philadelphia area hospital with friends and family at his bedside. He may be gone but he left a long list of hits, smashes and classics to soothe the pain and remind us forever what a true Soul Music legend should sound like. The Harold Melvin & The Blue Note leads; "If You Don't Know Me By Now;" "I Miss You;" "Bad Luck;" "Wake Up Everybody;" and the solo blazers; "Only You;" Life Is A Song Worth Singing;" "I Don't Love You Anymore;" the simply sweet "When Somebody Loves You Back;" "It Don't Hurt Now;" the come on trilogy; "Come Go With Me;" "Close The Door;" "Turn Out The Lights," and the post paralytic redemptive ballad "My Latest Greatest Inspiration" will outlive us all and show future generations what's up.
The Philadelphia Black Music community has produced many an executive, promoter, manager, producer, on air personality and artist. Patti Labelle, Nick Martinelli, Thom Bell, Linda Creed, Mtume, Dyana Williams, Butterball, Dr. Perri Johnson, The Jones Girls, Dexter Wansell, Schooly D, Jill Scott, The Roots, Lady B, Vikter Duplaix, Will Smith and others have all brought prestige to their town, and the Black Music tradition. I've met many of them, worked with a few, and was blessed to call one or two "friend."
One product of this community grew up, left town and made her way north up the turnpike to join the New York Hip Hop community, and as has been previously documented here, met me on a yacht filled with revelers celebrating the 3 X platinum success of Billy Ocean's "Caribbean Queen" album, signed Nas to Columbia Records, and made a lifelong friend of the playa. Her name is Faith Newman-Orbach, Faith to friends. She has chosen this venue to pay tribute to the influence of "The Bear" and Black Music on her life. We are honored that she has.
At about midnight last night I heard the news that Teddy Pendergrass had died. The tears started about thirty seconds in. I immediately sent an IM to my beloved friend of over 25 years, the insideplaya; I knew that of all the people in my life, he would understand why I felt such a sense of loss. “Write it down, he said, explain what he meant to you.” So, here goes…
I think to adequately express myself, I need to take it back…way back. I’m four years old and sitting by myself on the stoop of my Grandparent’s house in North Philly before the great white flight. Even as a little child, I liked to be alone with my thoughts. Across the street on the corner, there was a table set up distributing info on the Black Panthers being manned by three people with magnificent afros. I watched them for a few minutes, then decided to cross the street and join them. I can’t say why. They looked at me with amusement. “Are you lost?” one woman asked. She smiled at me and offered to walk me back across the street. She did.
By the time I was seven, I had purchased numerous records and had cataloged them in an orange spiral notebook. My first 45” purchase was Al Green’s “Guilty.” My first album was “Soul Train, The Hits That Made It Happen.” I remember walking through the mall with my Dad. I saw that album on a display rack outside of Woolworths. “I want this one” I said. “Are you sure?” my Dad asked. “Definitely.” Maybe he had forgotten that Soul Train was my favorite show and I that had my Mom wake me up every Saturday morning so I could put on my maroon platform shoes and dance along to the music.
By ten my family had moved to the suburbs, but I didn’t let that slow down my love for the music that felt more real to me than anything else in my life. At twelve, I would walk the mile to the SEPTA train so I could go to Center City Philly and buy records. Mind you the Philly of 1979 was a little different than the Philly of today. No matter to me. I would exit at Reading Terminal before heading down Market Street to buy records at Funk-o-Mart and Sound of Market Street then head home with a pile of 45s and albums. Naturally my stash included the “Teddy” album and 45s of “Come Go With Me,” and “Turn Off The Lights.” I think twelve year olds then weren’t quite what twelve year olds are today. I may not have know what was what, but I did know that whatever “sex” was, it sounded like Teddy Pendergrass. It became a natural part of my repertoire. I had music that spoke to every emotion, funky music to feel happy, ballads to feel sad and now Teddy to feel, well, you know…
Around this time, I was reading about Teddy’s “Ladies Only” shows at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby. I fantasized about actually being able to be there, never mind that I was too young. Besides, how would I get there and who would take me?
WHEN TEDDY MADE 'EM FELL "YOU KNOW"
I wrote love letters to Teddy (and Rick James!) that I never mailed. I tacked the “Teddy” and “Live Coast to Coast” album covers on my bedroom wall; I’m guessing that not too many of my classmates did the same. As a side note, that same year while roller-skating at United Skates of America on Roosevelt Boulevard, I heard “Rappers Delight, “ causing another monumental shift in my musical world that would carry into my later career in the hip hop business.
Flash forward to the early eighties. By fourteen I knew that I wanted to “be in the music business,” although I had no idea what that actually meant. All I did know was that I loved music, Black music, and that there had to make a life where I could be surrounded by it at all times. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
In 1981, at fifteen, I got my first job at a Philly record store called “The Listening Booth.” I flirted with the kinda slimy guy with the coke pinky who worked in the stereo department so he would play the in-store music that I liked. Of course that included Teddy and Rick and Marvin and Prince and my all time heroine, Teena Marie, the one person who made me feel that it was okay to be who I was and respect what I loved. I was asked to leave after I asked stereo guy to play Vaughn Mason’s “Jammin’ My Big Guitar” in the store. It was Christmas season and it didn’t go over too well with management.
Sixteen was the Prince 1999 show on U. Penn’s campus. I was a huge fan of The Time and wore my “Wild and Loose,” t-shirt to school the next day. I was met with a lot of quizzical stares. You see, I went to high school in a lily white suburb. There were exactly three African Americans in our whole school, one of whom is my friend to this day. What up Jeff?!
I was an honors student, I was a “good girl,” no sex, no drugs, no alcohol, but man was I addicted to the music. I remember trying to “fit in” more by going to a “kegger” with some of my classmates in junior year. They had asked people to bring records to play. I showed up with the Zapp IV album , and the Raw Silk (Do It To The Music) and Secret Weapon (Must Be The Music) 12”s. Needless to say, it didn’t go over too well and I left soon after glad that no damage was done to my vinyl.
1982 brought the tragedy that changed Teddy forever. I vividly remember the Philadelphia Inquirer headline accompanied by a black and white picture of his mangled car. I thought to myself, “he’ll be okay, he has to be.” I actually cried then like I did last night. It didn’t seem fair but I just knew he would be back to doing those ladies only shows so I could finally see him in person. When you’re young, you find it hard to accept that humans can be so frail and life so tenuous.
Since I was sixteen by then, and duly licensed to drive, I finally had the freedom to explore the world outside the suburbs. My best friend at the time was a Spanish girl named Olimpia who had recently moved to the United States from Valencia Spain. She was nothing like the other girls I knew. Her family ate dinner at 10:00 then sat around the table drinking espresso and smoking cigarettes. Olimpia had been going to nightclubs in Spain since she was fourteen; she got me.
We cosmetically altered our Pennsylvania licenses using White-out and black eyeliner and proceeded to hit Philly clubs like The Library, Kim Grave’s Lounge and Cahoots. We were the only non-Black girls there, but it never, ever felt strange to me. I mean, where else was I going to hear the music that I loved?
The summer of my sixteenth year also brought me an internship with Electric Factory Concerts. I was able to be backstage at numerous concerts, including Marvin Gaye’s last tour. I made some good friends there and was invited to more and more house parties in West Philly, which I clearly preferred over keg parties in the suburbs.
Between the house parties and the club nights, I got to know the Philly crew; Doug Henderson, Mimi Brown and Butter from WDAS, Lady B, Fred Buggs from Power 99, Lawrence Goodman, folks from Philly International, from Sigma Studios and of course, my friend Lee Johnson from Electric Factory Concerts who always looked out for me.
All of these people, these Philadelphia people, accepted me without hesitation. Around them and in that scene I didn’t feel like an outsider, I didn’t feel mis-understood. I love the Philly music scene to my core. It made me who I am. It allowed me to become a success in the music business, the dream I had had all my life.
So, why the tears for Teddy’s passing? Because he symbolized for me a time and a place in my life that can never be replaced, just as he can never be replaced. In 1994 when I was an A&R exect at Columbia Records, Teddy came in for a meeting with me. It was all I could do to keep my legs and my voice steady! He was kind and gracious and full of humor. He didn’t seem to have a bitter bone in his body. It was only a half an hour meeting, but I will never forget it; I will never forget him. Rest peacefully Teddy. We were blessed to have you in this world.