We’re slowly losing the people who could tell us about the way things used to be and give us knowledge to plow forward. We’re hitting the period in history where many of our pioneers in music, politics, medicine, law, art, etc., are inching closer to transition. If the grim list of passing pioneers from 2009 and early 2010 proves anything, it’s that we need to sponge all we can from our men and women who’ve paved the way.
I just wished we got more out of Teddy Pendergrass. We should have more of his words without rhythm, his words without melody and his words without orchestration. While there are some interviews available online, there was never a definitive “Teddy” piece. The soul music pioneer passed away last week at the age of 59 after a battle with colon cancer. And all we have left is the music.
With hits like “I Miss You,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Bad Luck” and “Wake Up Everybody,” Teddy, as a member of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, helped give heart to the compositions of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, the men who helped capture what is now known as “Philadelphia Soul.” After the break up of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy stayed with Gamble & Huff to craft some of the best music by any solo artist in any genre. “Close the Door,” “Turn Off the Lights,” “Come Go With Me,” “Can’t We Try” and “Love TKO” have become standards on classic soul and R&B stations. Even after a 1982 car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, he still recorded and even came up with another classic song in “Joy” that’s played as much as Frankie Beverly & Maze’s “Before I Let Go” at Black cookouts.
Teddy’s music takes you to so many places, brings up so many memories and has become the soundtrack for many generations. Those currently in their late 20s grew up with Teddy in several different ways. We played his vinyl with our parents at home, heard his music during the “quiet storm” programming block of radio and heard rappers rhyme over beats that featured his samples. Last Friday, DJ Wonder released a Teddy tribute mixtape that featured some of his old hits followed by the hip-hop songs that sample said hits. Hearing Teddy either with backup singers, on his own or chopped and looped by beatmakers is something so commonplace that we no longer notice how much of an anomaly that remains.
“Back in the Day (remix),” by Ahmad, was a top 40 hit in the early 1990s. The song, which spoke to the immediate nostalgia one feels when they realize they’re no longer children, relied heavily on a looped recording of “Love TKO.” In using that particular track to reminisce, Ahmad made his peers long for the days of Teddy on vinyl, while making elementary/junior high school kids, like me, pine for a past that seemed much cooler than what we were experiencing.
Teddy left behind a stack of recordings that sounded fresh, vital, smooth, elegant, rough, raw, sensual, sexual, romantic, loving and graceful all at the same time. I believe it was Chuck D of Public Enemy who once defined soul music as something where even if you didn’t understand the words, you still felt it. Teddy Pendergrass was the epitome of soul music, not only for his generation, but for the generation that discovered him through radio and the one who discovered him through hip-hop.
He’ll surely be missed.