Iconic R&B Crooner Teddy Pendergrass Dead At 59

Legendary soul and R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass has died. The star, known for such hits as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and "Wake Up Everybody" and for performing to ladies-only concerts, reportedly underwent surgery for colon cancer several months ago, followed by a difficult recovery. Pendergrass was 59.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, we have some sad music news to report. Teddy Pendergrass, whose seductive voice led the group Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, died Wednesday. He was 59. A Philadelphia native, Pendergrass began his musical career as a drummer and was hired as a replacement by Harold Melvin. He later became the lead singer of Melvin's group. The band was signed by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and had big hits with "Wake Up Everybody" and "If You Don't Know Me By Now."

In a 2007 interview with NPR's NEWS AND NOTES, Pendergrass told Farai Chideya how he moved from drummer to lead singer.

Mr. TEDDY PENDERGRASS (Soul and R&B singer): I was asked to come up front and sing as one of the singers because at the time Hal knew, we all knew that each one who could sing, who could not sing, because a group of nine people traveling in a station wagon around the country kind of knew who could do what. So when he asked, I thought, okay, that would be interesting. So I left the drums and went to the front as one of the singers. Then in 1971, we got a record deal with Gamble and Huff. The group changed the name to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and, voila, I was one of the singers with the group.

(Soundbite of "Wake Up Everybody")

HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES (Soul and R&B band): (Singing) Wake up everybody no more sleeping in bed. No more backward thinking time for thinking ahead. The world has changed so very much from what it used to be. There's so much hatred, war and poverty.

MARTIN: As a solo artist, Pendergrass went on to a string of hit love ballads attracting huge female audiences with his ladies only concerts and becoming a sex symbol by the R&B genre with songs such as "Close the Door," "Turn Off the Lights," and "Love TKO."

(Soundbite of song, "Love TKO")

Mr. PENDERGRASS: (Singing) Takes a fool to lose twice and start all over again. Guess I better let it go. Looks like another love TKO. Oh, oh, oh. Think I better let it go...

MARTIN: Pendergrass's career almost came to an end in 1982 when his Rolls Royce crashed into a tree and he was paralyzed from a spinal cord injury, but he refused to accept that he could no longer perform. He continued to do live shows from his wheelchair, but his career was never the same. He performed less and less often and founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance to help others with spinal cord injuries. But he never forgot his fans and loved every minute of his singing career.

Mr. PENDERGRASS: I just try to be who I am and whatever comes off that stage is real, it's not a put on and it's not developed by somebody who just thought hey, this is what you need. It's not an image. This is the person that I am that I've been all my life. So I don't really pay a lot of attention to it. I just go to work. It's been a wonderful ride.

MARTIN: Teddy Pendergrass died Wednesday at the age of 59 following a difficult recovery from surgery after colon cancer.

(Soundbite of song, "If You Don't Know Me By Now")

HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES: (Singing) If you don't know me by now, you will never, never, never know me. Oh, oh, oh.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song, "If You Don't Know Me By Now")

HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES: (Singing) All the things that we've been through. You should understand me like I understand you.

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Teddy Pendergrass Dies At 59

Teddy Pendergrass; credit: Redferns i i

Teddy Pendergrass performs in London in 1982. Redferns hide caption

itoggle caption Redferns
Teddy Pendergrass; credit: Redferns

Teddy Pendergrass performs in London in 1982.

Redferns

Teddy Pendergrass cheated death at least once. That was in 1982, when, returning from a basketball game, his Rolls Royce skidded into a barrier and left him in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed. On Wednesday night, he finally succumbed, according to the Associated Press, to colon cancer. Pendergrass died in a hospital outside of Philadelphia, the city in which he was born 59 years ago.

I was working in a record store in the late 1970s when Pendergrass' solo records, like Teddy and TP, were selling like crazy. And, believe it or not, not only women were buying them. Yes, his charismatic sex appeal and his nickname ("Teddy Bear") drew in droves of women — with hits like "Turn Off the Lights" and "Love TKO" — but men also appreciated his rich, smoky baritone, as well as the finely crafted melodies by his main songwriters, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Together with Pendergrass, they helped define the Philadelphia Soul sound.

But before all that, Pendergrass started in the church — and not only singing. He was reportedly ordained as a minister while still in his teens. Later, his abilities as a drummer landed him a spot in Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and he eventually took over as the group's lead singer, racking up a run of hits such as "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "The Love I Lost" and "Wake Up Everybody."

After Pendergrass struck out on his own in 1976, his hits became even bigger and better. His self-titled album went platinum, and the album that followed, Life Is a Song Worth Singing, doubled that.

Just as his career was peaking, it fell. I remember the news of the car accident, and many of us fans thought he'd never sing again. But he did. Pendergrass fought back to make more records and concert tours, yet never with quite the same virile intensity.

Without getting too personal, when it came time to choose just the right sexy song, for me, it was always Pendergrass. Barry White? Down a few rungs. Teddy sang it from the guts. Always to the heart. His voice was raw and slightly raspy, yet refined. And, although he surely played up his sex appeal to millions of swooning women, there was rarely any sex shtick in his urgent, communicative delivery. And those songs — irreplaceable.

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