Teddy Pendergrass: Much More Than A Voice

Philadelphia Inquirer (1/19/10)
That sound. Unmistakable. There are few singers that it didn't matter what they sang. It was the voice that sold the song. That was Teddy Pendergrass.

His animal magnetism. Irrepressible. There isn't an honest man alive who wouldn't want for one night to feel what it would be like to have the hypnotic sway Teddy Pendergrass held over women.

But as unforgettable his voice and performance, his most remarkable gift was an incredible capacity to persevere - a refusal to quit no matter how dire the hardship. It was only his untimely death that stopped his string of unrelenting triumphs over personal demons and misfortune that would have broken a lesser man. His life and the lessons it provided will stand for as long as his voice replays.

When I interviewed Teddy a few years back, it wasn't his music he spoke of. It was of life's adversities, his fatherless childhood in North Philly., the inequity of the days his powerful voice was veiled by Harold Melvin's name, his struggle to find the children from whom he had been separated and the celebrity world of drugs. It never came across as a litany of self-pity, instead it was almost a thanks for the preparation he was given for the greatest fight he was to face.

I didn't meet my father until the age of ten. I didn't know much about him and I wasn't very curious, I figured what happened between my parents was their business. I had no father; it was a simple and sad fact of life. Then my mother, who had raised me alone, felt it was necessary for me to meet the man who was part of bringing me into the world. The meeting felt odd. Here was a man who I didn't know, living with a woman who wasn't my mother and he was raising a child with her and that child wasn't me. I don't remember if he actually said anything to me, but I do remember clearly that before we left he asked my mother for fifty cents. How could a man who'd never given me anything dare to ask my mother for money? It seemed so wrong. That was the first and last time I saw my father. A year later my father was murdered by a drinking buddy. I didn't know it at the time, but looking back it seems that from that point on I decided to never do without. So much of what I did was based on the strength I gained from not having a father there. With that loss, along with a strong and loving mother, I learned that I could persevere through almost anything. I had no idea how that perseverance would end up giving me the strength to deal with unimaginable adversity.

The unimaginable came on March 18, 1982. Teddy was riding a wave of hits, overflow concerts filled with adoring fans, Grammy recognition. The future was packed with an endless list of lucrative offers.

The dream came to a sudden, crashing end against a guard rail on Philadelphia's Lincoln Drive.

His spinal cord was severed between the fifth and sixth vertebrae. While there was some hope that he might recover, that disappeared quickly. He had no idea whether he would ever get out of a hospital bed, let alone sing again.

The fall was unthinkable. From the top of the very world, his every desire within a snap of his fingers, to a captive locked away, helpless, pain-ridden prison unable to lift his hand. Self-pity, more drugs and a sense of hopelessness swirled about his circumstance. Everything he had worked for, every dream he hoped for, as broken as the Rolls Royce on the winding park drive.

A newspaper article - "Vacancy: In Search Of A New Pendergrass" - all but buried Teddy.

"...it's unlikely that he will ever walk again, which means that he probably won't perform. If he sang from a wheelchair, it wouldn't be the same. His accident left a void. Who's going to be the next Pendergrass?"

While he recoiled from the words, instead of buying into the career obituary, it sparked that part of him that refused to give up. Teddy made a commitment to get back on stage. The New Pendergrass was no less than the old one. His voice was as powerful as ever, and while he may not have been able to walk the stage as before, his passion literally lifted his wheelchair off the stage. From his electrifying performance with Ashford and Simpson at Live Aid to sold out concert tours and more hit songs, to his important work with the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, aiding those who had much the same diagnosis as he had, Teddy dove back into life with as much dedication and zeal that surrounded any song that ever left his lips..

His comeback included a dramatic life-style change. In no uncertain terms, Teddy understood that sometimes God nudges you and sometimes he kicks you in the butt.

"If I had not been in that accident, I would not be here today, because I was killing myself."

Hopefully the Teddy Pendergrass story will be retold as more than a singer with amazing talent and charisma. Teddy discovered that the difficult lessons are the toughest to swallow, but learned well they are also the ones that get you through the toughest times, making life a genuine gift.

As he wrote and sang, both despite and because of his trials, Teddy Pendergrass's life was "Truly Blessed."

Steve Young is author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful...Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and other Steppingstones to Success." Tallfellow Press (www.greatfailure.com)