Editor’s note: A Vintage View showcases senior reporter Len Lear, who has been reporting in Northwest Philadelphia for more than 50 years.
Editor’s note: A Vintage View showcases stories by senior reporter Len Lear, who has been reporting in Northwest Philadelphia for more than 50 years.
In the 1970s, I had a full-time reporter's job with the Philadelphia Tribune, but the pay was so meager that I did as much freelance writing as I could on nights and weekends. I wound up writing freelance articles for some national magazines.
One day in 1979 I got a call from Ben Burns, the editor of Sepia, a national Black magazine based in Texas that specialized in features mostly about popular Black entertainers.
“I want you to interview Teddy Pendergrass,” he said. “He is the hottest Black male singer on the planet right now.” At the time, Pendergrass fans would go so far as to throw their underwear up on stage at any of his sold-out concerts, prompting some to call him “the Black Elvis.”
I knew that Pendergrass lived in Philadelphia. But when I contacted his public relations people, I was delighted to find out that he lived in a big house on West Allens Lane, just a few blocks from our own house on West Mt. Airy Avenue. He was so close to us that I could walk to his house. Not only that, Grover Washington, Jr., a jazz musician who also had a national reputation, lived just two doors away from Pendergrass.
When I arrived for our interview, his Rolls Royce Silver Spirit was parked in front of his house. And inside, he had a Steinway grand piano in his massive living room, which he played for me.
Then he told me about growing up in an impoverished section of North Philadelphia, where he often sang at church. He told me that he was the only child of Jesse and Ida Geraldine (née Epps) Pendergrass and that his mother had suffered six miscarriages before successfully giving birth to him.
He also told me that he dreamed of being a pastor and was a junior deacon of his church. And that when he was very young, his father left the family. He did eventually reconnect with his father many years later, but soon afterward Jesse was stabbed to death during an argument with another man. The date was June 13, 1962. He was 47 years old.
Aside from being neighbors, we had something else in common. Pendergrass attended Edison High School in North Philadelphia in the 1960s, just a few years after I became a substitute teacher there. He dropped out of school in 11th grade, though, to enter the music business.
His first song, "Angel with Muddy Feet,” was a flop. But he persisted, and eventually, he joined Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes – which had numerous hit records after making Pendergrass the lead singer.
The group landed a recording deal with Philadelphia International Records in 1971, thus beginning Pendergrass' successful collaboration with famed label founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Teddy's raspy baritone voice and often suggestive lyrics were a magnet for female fans, which is what led to all the underwear on stage. Pendergrass left Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in 1975 and went on to fabulous success as a solo act.
I must say that Pendergrass did not even pretend to be humble, as many entertainers do. He boasted unapologetically about his success, and who could blame him? He had five consecutive platinum albums between 1977 and 1981, a record at the time for a Black R&B artist.
Pendergrass had a reputation for being aloof, even arrogant. I almost walked out of the interview because he made a few phone calls while I was waiting for one hour in his living room, after being right on time. I told him that I was leaving because he was so disrespectful and that he wasn't the only one whose time was valuable.
He looked shocked but apologized, saying, “Where I come from, it's an accomplishment just to live to be an adult. People who grew up middle class can’t understand what it's like to leave your house and not know if you will return alive later in the day. You have to be tough. You have to let people know that you will not put up with any s***.”
And, he said, making people wait sends a message that you are “the boss.”
“There are a million singers out there,” Pendergrass said. “A lot of them have really good voices. To get to the top and stay at the top is a constant struggle. And almost everybody is envious of what you have accomplished.”
It’s tough – even for people who, unlike him, grew up with privilege.
“How many singers have one hit record, and then you never hear from them again?” he said. “So you have to have a hard exterior to deal with all that, and you have to be suspicious of all the hangers-on who want to take a little piece of what you have achieved.”
Some people I contacted in the music business told me that Teddy was a ticking time bomb because of his heavy drug use, and on March 18, 1982, while driving on Lincoln Drive near Rittenhouse Street, Pendergrass crashed his Rolls Royce into a median barrier at a high rate of speed. According to police, at the time of the accident, Teddy's driver's license had been suspended for unpaid parking tickets. He had also wrecked a Maserati the previous week, they said.
At the time, the media reported that Pendergrass was driving Tenika Watson, a transgender nightclub performer, to her house. (According to her memoir, “My Life is No Accident,” Watson had sexual reassignment surgery five years before the accident.) Watson told the press that Teddy's Rolls Royce hit a guardrail, crossed onto the oncoming lane and crashed into two trees.
The impact jammed the doors, trapping Pendergrass and Watson for almost an hour until both could be freed. While Watson walked away from the collision with minor injuries, Pendergrass suffered a spinal cord injury, which left him paralyzed from the chest down. He never walked again.
“The one thing that always bothered me,” Watson told the Philadelphia Gay News in a 2011 interview, “was that the news media got there before the ambulance did. It upset me to think that people were calling for publicity before they called for help.”
When I read that, I couldn’t help but think of our conversation.
Pendergrass' career was basically over after the accident, but on July 13, 1985, I was watching when he made an emotional return to the stage at the historic Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, appearing in front of a live audience of over 100,000 and an estimated 1.5 billion television viewers. It was his first live performance since the accident. When Pendergrass tearfully thanked the audience and then performed the Diana Ross song, “Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand,” there weren't too many dry eyes in the audience.
And neither were mine.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org