In 1978 and 1979, Teddy Pendergrass was a mega-star with nothing to prove. He was the hottest male vocalist in R&B. He released Platinum albums, headlined sold-out stadium concerts, and even had his own line of Teddy Jeans for women.
Just one year earlier, though, he was an emerging solo artist with everything to prove. All it took for the change was two solo albums, led by Life Is a Song Worth Singing.
Theodore Pendergrass was born March 26, 1950, raised as an only child by a supportive single mother in North Philadelphia. He began his music path around two years old when an aunt nicknamed him “Teddy the Bear.” As he wrote in his autobiography, Truly Blessed, “By then I had already begun singing along to everything I heard, which in our home was gospel. I grew up on the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke, Professor Alex Bradford, Shirley Caesar, the Swan Silvertones, the Clara Ward Singers, James Cleveland, the Five Blind Boys, and of course Mahalia Jackson.” In church is where young Teddy not only witnessed his mother singing, but also where he began singing publicly. And at age 10, he became an ordained minister and taught himself to play drums.
As a teenager, Pendergrass began enjoying secular music outside of the church. At age 18, he became a professional drummer, playing dates with the Cadillacs. At one of their performances, vocalist Harold Melvin was in the audience and scouting replacements for the Blue Notes, whose origins were as a 1950s doo-wop singing group. Melvin hired the Cadillacs as vocalists to be his new Blue Notes, and he hired Pendergrass as drummer in the late 1960s. “I loved drumming, but my real dream was to be out front singing,” Pendergrass wrote in his autobiography. “I’ll never forget one time at the Flamboyan Hotel in Puerto Rico, something came over me. I’m not a practical joker by nature, but I thought it would be funny if I jumped up from behind my drums and joined the Blue Notes down front for a few seconds. When I did it, the guys were shocked to see me there beside them, but … I fell into their dance steps and harmonized with them. The crowd loved it.”
At one club appearance after his impromptu singing debut, Pendergrass was considering leaving the Blue Notes like the Cadillacs, now his former group mates, had recently done. “I was standing outside the club … telling (a woman) how badly I wanted to sing and how I was thinking about quitting the Blue Notes to pursue that dream,” he wrote. “Harold just happened to step outside about then and overheard me. Later he approached me and asked, ‘Do you think you’d like to sing instead of playing drums? Because if you would, that’s fine with me. I think you’d make a great singer.’” By all accounts, Pendergrass was better than “great,” and in 1970, his rich baritone earned him a new role as vocalist with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, who toured regularly playing cover tunes and standards.
Back home in Philadelphia, songwriter-producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were enjoying the beginnings of their recording empire which, in the late 1960s, would include successful singles like “Expressway to Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors (1967) and “Cowboys to Girls” by the Intruders (1968). In 1971, Gamble and Huff formed Philadelphia International Records (PIR) along with Thom Bell, another gifted songwriting collaborator and arranger. The label, distributed by CBS Records, would become home to several artists who enjoyed critical and commercial acclaim with Gamble, Huff, and Bell’s production and message-oriented songs. The music was powered by a rhythmic and string-heavy sound, rooted in soul and R&B, that became known as “The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP)” or “The Philly Sound.”
In 1972, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes became the newest addition to the Philadelphia International Records roster. They enjoyed instant chart and commercial success with R&B Top 10 Billboard hits like “I Miss You,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “The Love I Lost,” “Where Are All My Friends,” “Bad Luck,” and “Wake Up Everybody” — all which featured Pendergrass on lead vocals, though it was Melvin who was the leader in name and in access to the group’s finances.
Over time, Pendergrass became disenchanted. He wrote, “Since Harold believed that we were all replaceable, he had little incentive to make us happy. Harold made sure that we never knew how much our records earned or the amount of money we were entitled to. While I’d never seen a full accounting of our earnings from PIR, I’d long suspected that Harold was being less than fair. Way less.” He left the Blue Notes for good in late 1975. “Each of us had signed directly, individually, to PIR.They had a contract with me already, so they stood to benefit by my going solo if I was successful,” Pendergrass continued. “But in the music business, that was a big if. The track record for lead singers who’d left their groups for solo careers was not exactly encouraging.”
For about a year, Pendergrass stayed out of the public eye, while working on his debut solo album for Philadelphia International Records and proving to naysayers that he was worthy of solo stardom. In a 1977 story for SOUL Newspaper, writers Leonard Pitts Jr. and G. Fitz Bartley noted that Pendergrass “doesn’t like to talk about being the former lead singer for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.” About his new album, he told them, “I hope people don’t expect the same sound that I had with the group, cause there is no Blue Notes behind me on the record, so it won’t be the same. No longer are you trying to project a group. You’re trying to put the focus on one person.” Pitts and Bartley also remarked on the words on Pendergrass’ T-shirt: “Teddy is Ready.”
In 1977, Philadelphia International Records was also ready, and released the self-titled Teddy Pendergrass album, which went Platinum. More importantly, it set the tone that Pendergrass was not only poised for solo stardom, he was already a star.
And for anyone who had lingering doubt about his powers, Life Is a Song Worth Singing, Pendergrass’ second album, came with the receipts. Recorded at the famed Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia and released in June of 1978, the album was an artistic and commercial triumph and, creatively, a work of art. It positioned him as a sex symbol, but not just that. The album also contained groove-filled excursions for the mind and for the dancefloor. It showcased Pendergrass’ versatility and robust voice to even greater range than its predecessor, and it quickly rose from the level of fan favorite to TSOP masterpiece.
The album’s title track, written by the songwriting team of Thom Bell and Linda Creed, was a remake of an earlier version of the song, originally released by Johnny Mathis in 1973. The song’s lyrics contained a message of empowerment and perhaps a subliminal nod to Pendergrass’ decision to go solo just a couple years earlier: “So you sit on your pants and holler / ’Cause the world ain’t been treating you right / Don’t you know you contain the power / To control what you do with your life.”
Whereas the dance-friendly title track established the album’s energy, “Only You” raised the raw funk level to 100 with an infectious bassline, singalong chorus (“You got, you got, you got what I want”) and unforgettable horn arrangements by veteran PIR producer/writer/musician Dexter Wansel. Recorded the same day as “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” by the Philadelphia International All-Stars, “Only You” was released as the second single from Life Is a Song Worth Singing and peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard R&B chart. A special disco version of the song was released as a 12” single, extending the song’s time from the 5:05 album version to 7:58 on the disco mix. (In 1982, Clarence Fountain and the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama would release a gospel version of “Only You,” titled “Jesus (He’s Got What I Need).”)
“Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose” was another uptempo cut that was party-ready. Its 12” single version also extended the song’s runtime from the album version of 5:25 to the disco version of 7:11 – giving dancers more of what they were funkin’ for. An instrumental cover version of the song would make its way into episodes of the popular late-1970s sitcom What’s Happenin’, proving to be a go-to number for the character of Freddy “Rerun” Stubbs to perfect his “locking” dance to. And on a 2018 episode of the Questlove Supreme podcast, Randy Jackson told host Questlove that “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose” inspired the bassline for The Jacksons' 1978 hit, “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” which he co-wrote with his brother, Michael Jackson.
The album is rounded out by slower numbers, the broodingly beautiful “Cold, Cold World,” written by Victor Carstarphen, Gene McFadden, and John Whitehead; the reflective “It Don’t Hurt Now,” written by Sherman Marshall and Ted Wortham; and the swirling, two-step R&B classic, “When Somebody Loves You Back.”
And then there was “Close the Door,” the album’s smoldering debut single, with Pendergrass’ voice alternating between smooth and rugged, at all times seductive. And lyrics like “Let’s bring this day to a pleasant end / Girl, it’s me and you now.” “I’d recorded songs that were romantic, flirtatious, even mildly suggestive, before. I mean, I don’t think anyone who heard me or saw me then mistook me for a choirboy. But for reasons my female fans would probably be better able to articulate than I can, ‘Close the Door’ took the audience response and adulation to a whole new level,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The screaming and swooning were great, don’t get me wrong. And then the ladies started tossing flowers, notes with phone numbers, house keys, and teddy bears. Okay, that was still cool. But I will never, ever forget the night I watched a pair of silky panties sail over the crowd and land at my feet. If my face could have turned beet red, it would have.”
“Close the Door” spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart, starting July 8, 1978, and would spend 17 weeks on the R&B chart’s Top 40 singles. The song would also cross over to the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 25 on September 15, 1978. The song’s success drove the momentum of the album, which reached No. 1 on the R&B albums chart and Np. 11 on the pop albums chart. It was certified Platinum by the RIAA in August 1978. That year, Pendergrass would also receive an American Music Award for Best R&B Performer, as well as a Grammy Award nomination and awards from Ebony Magazine and the NAACP.
While Life Is a Song Worth Singing was Pendergrass’ bold statement as a solo star, the album is equally a showcase of the masterful production of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Together, Gamble and Huff wrote four of the album’s songs: “Only You,” “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose,” “When Somebody Loves You Back,” and “Close the Door.” Pendergrass praised them in his book, stating, “Gamble and Huff had that rare gift of artistry combined with killer commercial instinct. They put tremendous thought and effort into tailoring songs for each singer’s voice.”
Buoyed by the success of Life Is a Song Worth Singing, Philadelphia International Records continued to support Pendergrass’ solo career with more albums (Teddy in 1979, TP in 1980 and It’s Time for Love in 1981). There were also plans to increase his viability in the pop market, while leveraging his status as a sex symbol and the star of his “For Ladies Only” concerts. These plans tragically halted with a 1982 car crash in Philadelphia. The accident left Pendergrass paralyzed from the waist down. He would never walk again. Eventually, through the care of doctors, family and friends, he restored his strength and his influence both as a recording artist, live performer, and as a heroic advocate for people with spinal cord injuries.
While Pendergrass passed away in 2010, his legacy and story continue to be told, further cementing his stature as one of the greatest vocalists of R&B and American popular music. The Teddy and Joan Pendergrass Foundation, which assists spinal cord injury survivors, was established in 2015. Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me, an award-winning documentary by filmmaker Olivia Lichtenstein, was released to great acclaim in 2018. And his music continues to be played worldwide — especially this album, Pendergrass’ pièce de résistance about loving and living through the good and bad. The album is his eternal statement that he would not only never turn back, but that he was here to stay. And that life is a song worth singing.
Hailing from New Orleans, Melissa A. Weber is a music researcher and historian who has presented papers at the Museum of Pop Culture’s Pop Music Conference and various academic conferences. As a writer, she has contributed pieces to Wax Poetics and Red Bull Music Academy, among others. As a respected crate digger and authority on funk, soul and disco, she’s been featured in Nelson George's Finding the Funk documentary and the book Dust and Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting. As DJ Soul Sister, she hosts “Soul Power,” the longest-running rare groove show in the U.S., on WWOZ FM, and “Lost and Found” on Red Bull Radio; and has performed with artists from George Clinton and Bootsy Collins to Questlove and DJ Jazzy Jeff.