Theodore Pendergrass died Wednesday, Jan. 13, at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia due to complications following colon cancer diagnosis last year. The Philadelphia Inquirer called him “a gruff-voiced bedroom balladeer to whom every R&B love man from R. Kelly to Usher owes a seducer’s debt.”
Teddy’s lover’s stripes were earned back in the ’70s when he worked it as lead in Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Soul heads know that Teddy’s smooth transition from Harold Melvin to solo sex symbol is largely thanks to Berry Gordy’s Philly rivals, Gamble and Huff. The songwriting and producing duo behind Philadelphia International records crafted and massaged Philadelphia soul music until it made outsiders jealous. They mentored, wrote and produced for The O’Jays, The Jacksons, Patti Labelle, Phyllis Hyman, Harold Melvin and Teddy. Eventually, Teddy and Kenny Gamble became so close, their kids grew up together.
Teddy, whom his friends called “Teddy Bear,” stayed on Philadelphia International from his Harold Melvin days to 1981’s It’s Time For Love.
On Friday (Jan. 22) at a public memorial in Philadelphia, hundreds of fans made their way out to Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church to remember Pendergrass as the soul king who fought the good fight of faith. But to Kenny Gamble’s 31-year-old son, a local Philly hip-hop producer named Isa Salahdeen, Pendergrass was more like “Uncle Teddy.”
In his own words, Salahdeen recalls growing up around the man who changed soul music forever:
I remember growing up and seeing Uncle Teddy. My dad used to always bring me to the studio and talk about how Teddy was one of his best artists. Because he was always was around, I started calling him Uncle Teddy. He was one of [Gamble & Huff’s] main artists, and he definitely laid down a lot of stuff for Philly International.
By the time I was born, he’d had his accident. And it was like slow motion for him because he was rehabilitating himself and just coming back. I remember being around him when he did [the album] Joy. That was like a comeback record for him after being paralyzed— he was still showing people he could put out a hit record.
Right now where I live, he used to live right on the top of the hill in this area called Gladwyne. It’s 15 minutes away from Philly. I remember going to middle school and if I came home and my mom wasn’t there, I would go to Uncle Teddy’s house. I use to go and knock on his door and if he’d be home he’d be like, “Alright, just take it easy. Pull out your [school] books.’ He had an office around City Line Avenue [in Philadelphia] and one day me, my mom, my brother and everyone were all in the office. My mom was like, “Let me talk to your Uncle Teddy for a minute, y’all go out there and sit down.” I was a bad little kid and I started playing with his Xerox machine. And he came and saw me playing with his copy machine, and I was making copies of my hands, my face, and he was like, “Boy don’t you know how much I paid for that Xerox machine?! And you playing around on it?!” He did discipline me, I’m not even gon’ lie. He was real stern, and he was in a wheelchair, and he pulled me over to the side and I thought, Man, he nothing to play with after that day! I think I got on his bad side. But he always loved me. His son, Teddy Jr., was a little older than us, but we all grew up together. We went to the same high school.
As I got older, he became like a mentor to me. When I started making music, I’d give him a CD and be like, “Uncle Teddy can you listen to this and just tell me what you think?” And he would. He became a father figure.
Recently before he died, my dad and I went to go see him in the hospital probably four or five times. Him and my dad talked but Teddy—he really couldn’t talk, he was like…just moving his lips. And he was telling my dad that he wanted to go home, he wanted to get in the studio, he wanted to get back at it and him and my dad were just sitting there. One day my dad kind of took me to the side and said that it doesn’t look like Teddy was gonna be alright. This might have been a month and a half ago. Teddy’s wife had told my father that it wasn’t looking good. And my dad kind of told me to keep my mouth shut about the whole situation. This was before everybody knew something had happened to him. So for like two months, I was basically holding that in without telling anybody about his situation.
Uncle Teddy was in the hospital for a long time. That showed me he was fighting, like he really wanted to be here. He was on life support and he had an aid standing next to him all the time. The first time we went up there to the hospital, he was asleep. And then we went up there again and he was coherent.
A couple of nights before he died I had [drove past] his house and I was just thinking about him. One day I was dropping off my friend Dutch [from Major Figgas] and listening to the radio. I turned to the slower music on 105.3 [in Philly] and I heard, “Teddy Pendergrass just passed away.” I was shocked. It’s like I knew it was going to happen but I didn’t know it would be that day.
I called my parents the next morning. My mom gave me information on his funeral…my dad…I can’t really explain how he took it. With my dad it’s closer for him because Teddy was almost like a brother. They were so close. And anytime you work together with anybody in the studio, you don’t just work with the artist— you get to know their family, their kids…
I know the impact this is going to have on people, not just in America but all over the world. His music has touched so many. A lot of people were made from his music. Stuff like “Turn Off The Lights” and all that…that was love music back in the day.
He was a strong person. He had a great voice. And I want people to just know that he was a loving person, a loving father, a loving friend…a loving everything. —As Told To Linda Hobbs