Now here’s a recently deceased musician who meant a lot to me growing up. To tell the truth, I thought Sound of Philadelphia singer and sex symbol extraordinaire Teddy Pendergrass was dead already. The guy suffered more bad breaks than most, such as the car accident that paralyzed him at the height of his popularity. I guess it was his diagnosis of the cancer that finally did him in that got misfiled in my mind.
As lead vocalist for Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, Pendergrass first came fully into focus for me through the group’s hit song “Wake Up Everybody.” This is still my favorite TSOP recording. I dig the way the arrangement slowly swings and builds. I dig the guitar fills. I dig the idealistic lyrics, which always made me feel better during generally bad times. I dig the long, shuffling fadeout. I dig the contrast between the horns and the strings. I dig the slow burn of Pendergrass’ husky vocal and the harmony on the choruses. Like a lot of the best hits by The O’Jays and other TSOP groups, the magic’s in the fadeout. Finally, this may not be something I should share, but I dig what he represented to me, a white boy, as a black man in the mid-’70s.
An old friend and I have the probably horrible habit of noting African American men who we feel may be the “Last of the ’70s Black Man.” This practice probably began in the late-’80s, when the strong, stylish, wise, spiritual, sexual, manly-yet-tender African American hero of our adolescent years seemed to be dying out in favor of young African American men who aspired to what we perceived as a less-idealistic and sartorially splendid ideal. Forgive me for my taste and biases, but a Fame-type-schooled pseudo-thug of the hip-hop era like Tupac Shakur didn’t jibe with my perception of what I would have aspired to if I’d grown up an African American man.
Pendergrass, the performer, was one of the archetypes of the ’70s Black Man – and to a large extent the ’70s Man, a man who – red, yellow, black, white, and brown, as The O’Jays sang – was heavily informed by fashion trends in African American culture atop the previous generation’s Hippie and Civil Rights-generated social awareness. I can’t assess Pendergrass as a real man, because I didn’t know him and only recall rumors of the circumstances of his spinal cord-severing accident as being less-than savory. What I do recall clearly is his role in setting the bar for a hirsute, deep sense of Mandom. And his music.
I’ve probably shared tales before about the “unisex” hair salon where I’d have my thick, wavy hair properly tended to, center parted, and feathered. Gary, the proprieter, always had the ’70s soul of WDAS or albums by ‘DAS-favored artists, like Pendergrass and some woman who sang really dirty songs – shoot, I’m blanking on her name! The commercials for upcoming concerts by those artists were eye-opening. Their shows were promoted like the public orgies.
Picture this: Gary, a hirsute, wavy-haired, 3-shirt buttons-opened, tight designer jean-wearing, coke binge-referencing bisexual guy with a voice exactly like Harvey Fierstein is cutting my hair. Teddy’s playing on the stereo. A hot woman with 3 buttons undone on her blouse is having her Farrah-do blown out in the chair next to mine. I’m a 16-year-old virgin, fresh from the morning’s latest family crisis, hoping not to blow my cool and lord knows what else. How to be cool? How to rise above my situation? How to be worthy of a “Ladies Only” concert, which WDAS was promoting on behalf of Pendergrass one Saturday afternoon and which I’ve never forgotten. That’s part of what Teddy Pendergrass meant to me – and it all supported the music. That’s how I justify sharing with you my lamentable and ongoing would-be identification with him; Wilt Chamberlain; Marvin Gaye; the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Dave Parker, the Hawk, Andre Dawson (one of the first of the Last Black Men of the ’70s); and my current would-be African American role model, actor Laurence Fishburne.
The mourning of a person’s death is best focused on that person’s life and what his or her life meant to each of us, no? I feel deeply about my TSOP adolescence and Teddy Pendergrass’ role in it. I’m sure you have your own feelings on the matter, and they’re just as valid.