Jan 142010

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.


  19 Responses to “Bad Luck Streak Comes to an End: Teddy Pendergrass Dies”

  1. BigSteve

    Mod, do you think your affection for this kind of material is typical of a man of your background, age, and musical taste? I ask because I totally missed out on the Philly soul thing. I don’t think I hated it at the time. I had stopped listening to the radio then, and I guess it just would have seemed irrelevant to me. If I hear Philly soul now, I have a vaguely positive reaction, but no strong feelings one way or the other. I wonder whether Townsmen not from the area have a different attitude about this stuff.

  2. BigSteve

    Where will it end? Mick Green, guitarist for British maximum R&B band the Pirates died Monday. Jay Reatard yesterday. And Now I hear that Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles, who wrote Walking To New Orleans and See You Later Alligator in the 50s and then recorded a great obscure gem of an album with members of The Band in the 70s, died today. Do we blame Vic Chestnutt for starting this?

  3. Mr. Moderator

    I can’t speak for others from the Philly area in the Halls of Rock, BigSteve, but for me that’s what I was trying to get at. For me, Pendergrass and the Philly soul of my childhood and adolescent years are completely tied to my background. My Mom played that stuff (and General Slocum’s favorite style of music, Motown) in the house. My uncle – the one who turned me onto The Band, Traffic, Joe Cocker, Hendrix, and other hippie music – was also into that stuff and its predecessors. My grandparents owned a luncheonette in the city that catered to a large clientele of African American factory workers…

    The Philadelphia of my youth was a pretty cool, diverse, open community. We were never on the vanguard of anything positive regarding race relations, but it was a pretty hip culture driven in large part by the city’s then-vibrant mix of African Americans, Italians, Jews, and other typically “extroverted” ethnic groups. My family and I used to have a lot of black friends. Even the sports teams I followed had a very “black” vibe – the Sixers of George McGinnes, Dr. J, Mo Cheeks; the permed and mustachioed Phillies (white guys like Larry Bowa and Pete Rose played with the swagger and cockiness more typically associated with African American players). I really miss those days.

    In part it’s because I now live in a lily white (and Asian) suburban town and work in a very white (and Asian) industry, but I also feel our city has grown more racially segmented (rather than “divided”). Maybe it’s because I couldn’t keep up with hip-hop culture, but in terms of stuff I love and care about, I feel there are less opportunities for cultural crossover. The 2001 Sixers, when Allen Iverson was in full bloom, brought back some of that feeling. This current Phillies team, led by Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, allows me the chance to express my inner ’70s soul, but baseball crowds are primarily white – and white people seem whiter than ever these days:)

  4. Mr. Moderator

    Bobby Charles too? That’s a shame. You turned me onto that album he did with The Band, BigSteve, and for that I thank you.

  5. BigSteve

    It’s interesting that even your mom played that stuff. I guess it was a real ‘sound of the city’ kind of thing. I guess there’s no way for you to know how much more ubiquitous that stuff was in your environment than it was in other cities. Some, I assume, but that style was nationally popular. It’s similar to my experience growing up surrounded by New Orleans music, though I didn’t have the emotional connection to it at the time that you write about.

  6. misterioso

    Mo Cheeks: what a great name. He really should have worked with Gamble and Huff.

    So, Mod, what you are saying is that you were *raised on* Teddy Pendergrass?

  7. Mr. Moderator

    misterioso, THAT was an excellent attempted cut on me! Well played. For the record, a brief synopsis of my musical rearing follows:

    First records I recall spinning constantly, ages 3-5: “Snoopy vs the Red Baron” (or whatever that’s called) and “She Loves You”

    Ages 6-9: My uncle buys me almost all The Beatles albums and the second Band album. He gives me a big stack of his teenage singles, mostly James Brown, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. He lets me hang in his room and paint Da-Glo stuff on his wall while he plays Traffic and Leon Russell 8-tracks. At home my Mom is spinning Motown, Dione Warwick, and early TSOP. She also loves Johnny Mathis, who I CANNOT tune into on any level, thank god!

    Ages 10-12: The American Graffiti soundtrack blows my mind. I’m deep into the AM hits of Philly radio, much of which is TSOP stuff.

    Teen years: I get back back into British Invasion stuff – The Kinks, The Who, slightly more obscure stuff. Then I get reacquainted with my hippie upbringing through multiple screenings of The Last Waltz. Right after that I discover punk rock/New Wave. All seems headed in the right direction until the world’s tastes take a severe turn for the worse!

  8. misterioso

    Ha, ha, not at all! Just couldn’t resist. But thanks for the full-blown David Copperfield-esque (the Dickens novel not the “magician”) precis just the same. If I don’t know you by now, then I will never never know you.

    Anyway, I figure I will feel about the same way when Peter Wolf finally kicks the bucket, except, obviously, without the whole barber shop thing.

  9. My parents hardly played any pop music at all, but I heard Philly soul out in the streets, at school (literally, they would play soul and disco radio stations in the hallway and library) and other public places. We were in Philly, the epicenter, after all.

    Yet, I never paid attention to or cared for Philly soul until my mid-20’s. I didn’t think I knew that music, really. But I got curious, and once I got over the cheese-factor (let’s be honest) I realized how deeply this music was ingrained in me, and how much of it I knew. It was so surprising to me!

    There is something about Philly soul that I find very comforting – it’s so formulaic but so well crafted, great singers, players, great engineering… I think it’s very sad what’s become of contemporary R&B, though there are some exceptions. With TP, and a lot of the great Philly soul singers, you never got the sense he was trying to showboat, just deliver the song – something I wish more of the the post-Mariah/Whitney singers could understand. (You all know this anyway.)

    I remember being in a store on Manayunk Ave, several years ago. They sold baby and toddler clothes and toys, and they were playing TP while we were in there. It seemed like an odd musical selection, but then I thought maybe they were just trying to get people in the mood so they’d have more customers nine months into the future.

    RIP TP

  10. dbuskirk

    I always thought the Teddy is black Elvis thing was overplayed until I saw his Behind the Music episode on MTV and the concert footage was completely electric. I didn’t run across much of his solo stuff besides “Turn Out The Lights” but his Harold Melvin vocals are some of my favorite songs and performances of all time, completely fed by their ubiquity on 70’s Philly radio.

    I feel all swoony about TSOP like that, strongly laced in nostalgia as a well as timeless craft. Phillipe Wynn and The Spinners really make me froth unnaturally.

    You’re right though about the black/white music thing being particularly integrated around Philly, my friends from other parts of the country seemed to have been exposed to much less black culture than I did as a kid. All the jocks in my very white school listened to r&b and early hip hop and our high school dances were full of r&b chart toppers (Lakeside, Gap Band, Earth Wind and Fire, Funkadelic) despite being populated by paleness.

  11. Mod, your description of that unisex hair salon is laugh out loud funny: you might just be the David Sedaris of RTH.

    But I have to quibble with you on one thing: Tupac may have been more cynical than you may have liked, but he was just as idealistic as anyone you name: he just channeled it differently. In many ways, his is both a more aggressive and realistic stance, taken in part as a hard-won recognition that there is a heavy cost to be paid for being idealistic, a recognition that at times he grimly accepted and at other times fought against.

    Now I wouldn’t go as far to say that you’re really talking more about fantasy than about idealism, but you should at least keep in mind that things have changed greatly since the mid-70s for all inner-city minority cultures, and, sadly, not for the better.

  12. Mr. Moderator

    I hear you, Dr. John. I’m sure my inability to “get inside” much hip-hop has blocked my ability to see it for all it is.

  13. “white people seem whiter than ever these days.” That’s genius, Mod, and absolutely true.

  14. hrrundivbakshi

    Mwall said of what Mod said:

    “white people seem whiter than ever these days.” That’s genius, Mod, and absolutely true.

    I say: hogwash. *Maybe* older white folks are jealously guarding their cultural whiteness in the face of encroachment by black-ness. But down a generational level, thisngs are changing — dark folks are lightening, and a light ones are darkening. White teenagers blast gangsta rap out of their cars, while men of mixed race (whatever *that* means) get elected president. It’s all good.

  15. Not in my neighborhood, bakshi. The White Cultural Enclave is in full force.

  16. You guys are both right. I go to a Jay-Z show and it’s 95% white suburban kids. On the other hand, we still have people who are SURE that our president couldn’t possibly be an American because, well, there’s just something different about him, if you know what I mean.

    Mr. Mod, I hear ya. Philly soul was what it was all about at Martin Luther King Elementary School. And through much of middle school too. And I love it still. Funky AND beautiful – what more could you ask for?

  17. BigSteve

    But did you guys love it partly because it was local? Were you proud of it? And were you aware that kids in other places would not have been feeling it like you did? And did you never feel that some of it was just pretty and not really beautiful? Or that the prettiness sometimes got in the way of the funkiness? The upscale sound seems to be at odds with the socially conscious posture of the lyrics.

  18. dbuskirk

    I believe census data shows U.S. neighborhoods to be no more racially integrated today than they were in the 50’s, for what it is worth.

  19. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve wrote:

    The upscale sound seems to be at odds with the socially conscious posture of the lyrics.

    Isn’t this part of the whole Sound of the City tradition? To me it’s very much like the perspective of the Mods, which I’ve read about – that kids who didn’t have a lot of money were using “upscale” fashion to show that they were aspiring to something. This seems to continue in African American culture through young people’s fascintaion with blantantly designer clothing, that Tommy Hilfiger kind of stuff, which advertises that you put some effort and dough into buying it. So no, I think it’s perfectly natural that we show signs of aspiring to something better. I think that makes the social relevance of the lyrics more poignant.

    As for thinking about what other kids in other areas may have thought of that music, I never considered it. Those artists were all over American Bandstand and Top 40 radio, so it seemed like it must have been popular outside Philadelphia. That’s not to say that all the kids I grew up with liked that music – not at all. I did, however, have Philly pride for our music. Just last night, as soon as I got back from a business trip to Miami, I had a cheesesteak for dinner. It helped me get back into my Philly state of mind.

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