Thursday, January 14, 2010

Teddy Pendergrass, R&B Soul Singer, Dies at 59

Published: January 14, 2010

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.

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