When I heard the news that Teddy Pendergrass lost his fight with cancer yesterday, someone remarked that they thought he had died years ago. He had been pretty much out of the public eye for what seemed a very long time.
I thought about Teddy Pendergrass, the amazing career he had. He was synonymous with the 70s and early 80s – certainly in league with Barry White, Al Green, Luther Vandross. Sex symbols – voices and moments that become imbedded in your brain forever. I’m sure every time Teddy released an album, the birthrate went up.
So when I heard the news of the tragic accident in 1982 that put a halt to his performing career, it didn’t end his recording career – it just made it all seem detached. He was confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. Monitored and assisted 24 hours most days.
When I met him in 1984, two years after the accident, I was part of a film crew doing a long form video on Teddy. We got to spend a few weeks in Philadelphia, hanging out with him, asking questions, getting to know what Teddy was like after what he had been through, where he had come from. We visited some his haunts where he grew up. Shot a scene in the gym of his old high school. Talked to family and longtime friends Throughout all of it, Teddy was in great spirits. He had finished a long stretch of physical therapy and was ready to get back to work. He had signed to a new label (Asylum) and his new album Love Language was about to be released featuring a duet with the then-unknown Whitney Houston.
Teddy knew his limitations – he accepted them. He spoke about the accident, not in any kind of “poor me” sort of way, but that it happened, he was alive and now it was all different. He could still sing. He could still make music. Aside from being in a wheelchair, nothing had really changed. He was still Teddy Pendergrass. A whole new generation of artists would be inspired by his music and even though he wasn’t performing, aside from the occasional he was still very much an influence on the R&B scene.
He continued recording well into the 90s, putting in a rare performance for Live Aid and briefly touring with Stephanie Mills in a production of Your Arm’s Too Short To Box With God. And it wasn’t until he announced his retirement in 2006 that he slowly faded from view until yesterday when I heard the news that Teddy was gone.
But then, the thing about music – the thing about anyone who makes a difference in your life – they never really fade away. Sometimes the story does end, but the song goes on forever.