To some folks life come easy,
To some life come hard,
Some keep on tryin,’
Some just get tired.
– Teddy Pendergrass, “Cold, Cold World”
Sometimes a book is so good you can’t hold on to it. That is what happened to my copy of Truly Blessed, the autobiography of singer Teddy Pendergrass. I briefly left it, in a bag with other items, in a supposedly secure place. When I reclaimed the package later, the book and a new, unopened CD, Teddy Pendergrass, were gone. Yes, someone stole the book. On the bright side, for the thief, if he chooses to read Truly Blessed, he will not be disappointed.
Pendergrass’ is one of the better biographies of contemporary people I’ve read. It chronicles not only his personal story, but changes in society and the recording industry from the late 1960s to the late ’90s. Pendergrass has also written as honestly about being disabled as anyone I’ve read.
Teddy Pendergrass’ own story began at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia on March 26, 1950. His mother, Ida, is a deeply religious woman who had prayed for a healthy child after numerous miscarriages. Theodore DeReese was her blessing. He was reared in holiness churches in North Philadelphia as much as at home, sometimes spending hours there each day. At the age of ten, the boy got a ‘call’ from God. He interpreted the message to mean he might be destined to be a preacher. But, there was another suitor for his attention. Show business was almost as endemic to his community as religion. Soon, the Uptown Theater, Philadelphia’s version of the Apollo, was attracting the clean-cut youth from down the street. Pendergrass made a rite of passage in that regard when he was 13. His mother, prepared to whip him for staying most of the night at the Uptown, decided he was too grown up for the strap. Not long after, Ida Pendergrass bought her son a set of drums. He had taken his first step on the road to becoming Teddy Pendergrass, the star.
Though he would be extremely successful by the time he was in his mid-twenties, Pendergrass did pay his dues. After dropping out of high school, he worked at any menial job he could obtain, from waffle-making to driving a truck. But, his favored occupation was as a drummer, a skill he had perfected by his late teens. He drummed for several local bands. Then, in 1969, Harold Melvin, newly blown off by the latest version of the Blue Notes, hired the group Pendergrass was drumming for as vocalists and installed Teddy as drummer for the reconstituted Blue Notes. Within a year, the drummer was out front singing lead on most of the group’s songs.
Pendergrass credits Melvin with teaching him the ins and outs of show business. However, the relationship was fraught with tension from the start. For years, Melvin insisted on calling the group Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Many a confused person thought that Pendergrass, the tall, dark, lead vocalist, a commanding presence, was Melvin. The problems extended beyond Melvin’s egoistic effort to promote himself at Pendergrass’ expense. According to Truly Blessed, Melvin could be quite abusive and kept royalties for himself instead of distributing the money among the group’s members. Though on their way up in the business, the other Blue Notes often did not have even ticket money home.
Pendergrass could not have happened into the eye of the Philadelphia music scene at a better time. Philadelphia International Records, headed by songwriters and producers, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, was poised to unseat Motown as the leading producer of successful soul music. Once Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, featuring Teddy Pendergrass, signed with PRI, the group became major beneficiaries of the PRI machine. The finest production values in the business were theirs and the best songwriters of the time vied to have the group perform their material. Their albums were eagerly embraced, producing such hits as “Wake Up Everybody,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “Bad Luck.”
The soul groups of the 70s also benefitted from crossover success as white audiences purchased more and more soul recordings and albums succeeded on both the Rhythm and Blues and Pop charts.