Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Him...

Teddy Pendergrass in concert.
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David Redfern/Redferns

Teddy Pendergrass was one of the great lover-man R&B singers of the ‘70s; his best material was on par with that of other top-flight artists in that style, like Marvin Gaye’s I Want You and Barry White’s Can’t Get Enough and Smokey Robinson’s A Quiet Storm. Born in Philadelphia on March 26, 1950, Pendergrass first made a name for himself as the lead singer in Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, wrapping his rich but rough-edged baritone around a number of R&B and pop hits, before he departed the group in 1975.

The Blue Notes were the epitome of the romantic, string-laden Philadelphia soul sound, a sound Pendergrass took with him when he left, spinning five platinum albums in his first years on his own and making him one of the top live acts in R&B. An auto accident in 1982 left him paralyzed from the chest down, but he continued recording up until his death in 2010.

If you ever need to explain Teddy Pendergrass to someone unfamiliar with his work, here are a handful of tracks to cue up:

“If You Don’t Know Me by Now”

A Philly soul classic, and the soundtrack for millions of crying jags and heartbroken evenings. It’s been covered (most notably by Simply Red), but never equalled.

“You Can’t Hide from Yourself”

When Pendergrass left the Blue Notes, he continued working with the ace production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on his 1977 solo debut. “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me” were the singles, but we’re partial to this, the album’s leadoff track. Listen to that percussion, those perfectly placed background vocals, and Pendergrass testifying up front with that gruff but pliable voice. What a way to begin a solo career, right?

“Turn Off the Lights”

The bestselling single off his biggest album (1979’s Teddy), “Turn Off the Lights” was part boudoir mood music, part instructional manual for what to do while listening to it. It’s also one of his biggest solo hits, hitting No. 2 on the R&B chart.

“Love T.K.O.”

The chart action of “Turn Off the Lights” was equalled by this classic bit of slow-jam poetry. It takes a special singer to opine about his vulnerability, yet simultaneously sound completely in control.

“Joy”

For the title track of his third post-accident album, Pendergrass turned to the brothers Reggie and Vincent Callaway, who had written hits for Klymaxx, Levert and Natalie Cole, among others. The result is as sexy a come-on as Pendergrass had ever sung, but one that traded the heavy nature of his earlier songs for a lighter contemporary touch. The result was a No. 1 R&B hit, one of the last he would notch.

BONUS: “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” (Live Aid)

Ashford & Simpson ended their mini-set at the Philadelphia Live Aid show in 1985 by bringing out hometown hero Pendergrass for a moving take on perhaps their greatest song. To see 90,000 people singing along is the very definition of heartwarming; don’t be surprised if it still gives you chills, too.

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