NEW YORK (AP) — R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass, who was one of the most electric and successful figures in music until a car crash 28 years ago left him in a wheelchair, has died of colon cancer. He was 59.
Pendergrass died Wednesday in suburban Philadelphia, where he had been hospitalized for months.
The singer’s son, Teddy Pendergrass II, said his father underwent colon cancer surgery eight months ago and had “a difficult recovery.”
Before the crash, Pendergrass established a new era of R&B with an explosive, raw voice that symbolized masculinity, passion and the joys and sorrow of romance in songs such as “Close the Door,” “It Don’t Hurt Now,” “Love T.K.O.” and other hits that have since become classics.
He was an international superstar and sex symbol. His career was at its apex – and still climbing.
Friend and longtime collaborator Kenny Gamble, of the renowned production duo Gamble & Huff, teamed with Pendergrass on his biggest hits and recalled how the singer was even working on a movie.
“He had about 10 platinum albums in a row, so he was a very, very successful recording artist and as a performing artist,” Gamble said Thursday. “He had a tremendous career ahead of him, and the accident sort of got in the way of many of those plans.”
Pendergrass, who was born in Philadelphia in 1950, suffered a spinal cord injury in a 1982 car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down – still able to sing but without his signature power. The image of the strong, virile lover was replaced with one that drew sympathy.
But instead of becoming bitter or depressed, Pendergrass created a new identity – that as a role model, Gamble said.
“He never showed me that he was angry at all about his accident,” Gamble said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “In fact, he was very courageous.”
Pendergrass left a remarkable imprint on the music world as he ushered in a new era in R&B with his fiery, sensual and forceful brand of soul and his ladies’ man image, burnished by his strikingly handsome looks.
Gamble said Pendergrass was one of a kind as an artist and boasted a powerful voice and “a great magnetism.”
“He was a great baritone singer, and he had a real smooth sound, but he had a real rough sound, too, when he wanted to exert power in his voice,” Gamble said.
But it wasn’t Pendergrass’ voice that got him his break in the music business – it was his drum playing abilities. He met Harold Melvin, who was looking for replacement members for his group, the Blue Notes, and signed on to be the drummer. Later, he became the lead singer of the group, which became known as Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
The band started working with Gamble and Leon Huff and had signature hits in the early 1970s with “Wake Up Everybody” and “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.”
But Pendergrass had creative differences with Melvin and soon left for a solo career, according to his Web site. It was then he would become a sex symbol for the R&B genre, working women into a frenzy with hits such as “Only You” and concerts dedicated for ladies only.
“The females,” Gamble said, “loved Teddy Pendergrass. The females were very attracted to him and his music.”
Unlike the songs of many of today’s male R&B crooners, Pendergrass’ music bordered on eroticism without explicit lyrics or coarse language – just through the raw emotion in his voice. “Turn Off the Lights” was a tune that perhaps best represented the many moods of Pendergrass – tender and coaxing yet strong as the song reaches its climax.
Fans were devastated when, at age 31, Pendergrass was critically injured after his Rolls-Royce hit a tree. He spent six months in a hospital and returned to recording the next year with the album “Love Language.”
He continued to sing and recorded several albums, receiving Grammy nominations; perhaps his best-known hit after his crash was the inspirational song “Life is a Song Worth Singing.”
“To all his fans who loved his music, thank you,” his son said. “He will live on through his music.”
It was 19 years before Pendergrass resumed performing at his own concerts. He made his return on Memorial Day weekend in 2001, with two sold-out shows in Atlantic City, N.J.
Gamble noted Pendergrass’ charitable work for people with spinal cord injuries, his performances despite pain and his focus on the positive in the face of great challenges.
“He used to say something in his act in the wheelchair, ‘Don’t let the wheelchair fool you,’ because he still proclaimed he was a lover,” Gamble said.
But his career was never the same. Gamble said it was difficult for Pendergrass to project vocally like he once did: “The breathing aspect of it, he wasn’t really able to deal with it.”
And while he had albums, he was no longer seen as the sex symbol but more of a sympathetic, tragic figure, even though he still had a strong following among his core female fans.
After the accident, he dedicated much of his life to helping others with spinal cord injuries and founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance to do just that. Gamble said he wanted to help others.
“In his quiet moments, he probably did a lot of reflection. But I never saw him pity himself. He stayed busy,” Gamble said. “(But) I feel that he’s in a better place now. … He doesn’t have to go through that pain or whatever he was going through anymore.”
Associated Press writers Patrick Walters and Bob Lentz contributed to this report from Philadelphia.
Photo: Teddy Pendergrass