A Remembrance Of Teddy Pendergass
On The Sweetest Soul Singer Ever!
There is no telling how many people walking the earth today owe their existence to Teddy Pendergass, including my own twins Makeda and Samori. Annette John-Hall, a black female columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, reveals in a January 24 column “Plenty of women will tell you their children were conceived to Teddy’s boudoir ballads – ‘Close The Door…Love TKO.’” Then Miss John-Hall goes on to give us a glimpse of the effect Teddy’s singing had on the ladies who enthusiastically listened to him: “But truthfully, Teddy could have sung the phone book and sold millions of records, that’s the kind raw, full-throttle sex appeal he had…such was the intimate power of his music.”
This does much to explain the magic moments I enjoyed with the ladies listening to Teddy’s records. For my money Teddy was the greatest singer of Rhythm and Blues love songs that the gods ever blew the breath of life in. Just as Zora Neale Hurston, that great student and interpreter of Afro-American culture, once observed that a black preacher “must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit;” a black singer of love songs must sound like a poet who’s really in love to woo and win a black audience. And Black women of a certain vintage, wise dusky earth mothers that they are, have very demanding standards; a dude’s got to know how to beg with style alas. Although great black singers of love songs are legion, nobody ever did it better than Teddy.
As a fellow Philadelphia I had many opportunities to view Teddy from his earliest performances; long before he captured the attention of the world with his thrilling baritone voice – an extension of the style introduced by the lead singer of the Dells, in the same way that Michael Jordon was an extension of the art of Julius “Dr. J” Irving on the b-ball court. From jump street Teddy’s raspy rough edge sound radiated a sensuality that was more than mere animal desire.
Although the chemical reactions and electric sparks that his crooning ignites between males and females often fills the listener full of fluid and make them wanna do it – creating an urge to merge not unlike the heat sizzling between the beast in the fields – Teddy’s sound is the epitome of true romance. It is grown folks music; reaching deep down to a level of emotional gratification that can be only achieved in true romance between mature adults….or an intense religious experience.
I can still remember the day I took a lady of mine to see Teddy at the world famous Apollo theater when he was the lead singer with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. It was right after they had a big hit, and the theater was packed. This was during that halcyon age in Afro-American culture before the removal of music programs from the public schools that provided the opportunity for black youths to participate in the joyous art of choral singing.
This was before the risqué excesses and hard edge truth telling of hip hop replaced the transcendent sermons of the church as a moral compass for increasing numbers of alienated youths – disillusioned young people who lost both faith and hope in the nihilistic milieu of the post industrial city and rejected the source of all great African America music: the black church. But Teddy grew up in the sprawling black community of North Philly, and was very much a child of the church, whose deep spiritual power informed the passionate way he sang his songs.
The memory that stands out most from that Apollo concert -aside from the warm harmonies, general polish and masculine elegance of the Blue Notes – was the magical effect Teddy’s performance had on the women in the audience. My date was an outrageously fine but very reserved southern lady who had impeccable manners and two Doctorate degrees. But then Teddy began to croon his tune in that special way in which he seemed to be singing to every woman in the room personally.
“Doctor Doctor” completely lost her cool right along with her unlettered sistas from round the way! Ms. John-Hall, a compelling writer, recalls a similar experience: “I saw him at the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos California, during one of his ‘Ladies Only’ concerts in the early 80’s. He’d get up, get down, get funky, get loose, rip off his sweaty shirt, and the heat seemed to just rise off of him like steam.”
I was astonished at Teddy’s gift for achieving this sense of intimacy in a crowded room; it was one of those rare instances of real magic I have witnessed in a live performance – and I have spent a thousand and one nights in theaters and music halls. I knew two things at that moment: Teddy was too big to remain merely the featured singer with Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes for long, and when he decide to fly solo he would soar straight to the top. It wasn’t very long before I was listening to WBLS in New York and heard them announce that Teddy had split the Blue Notes and gone solo. And just as I suspected, he soon blew up as large as the Goodyear blimp!
At the height of his prowess the Teddy Pendergrass show was something to see. Having come of age at the end of a golden era of live shows, when every dance hall and beer garden had a live band, one had to learn the fine art of showmanship if one hoped to survive let alone thrive in the Darwinian milieu of show business. This meant that one’s act had to be polished and original. I remember seeing Harold Melvin in performance some years after Teddy left, and I was still knocked out by his stage craft even as I preferred Teddy’s singing. Yet it was obvious that the experience he gained performing with the Blue notes prepared Teddy for stardom as a solo act, because it provided him the opportunity to develop the skills required to command a stage when all eyes are you.
Teddy was as much a man’s man as a ladies man. Whereas all the ladies wanted to be with him, all the men wanted to be him. Especially the brothers of darker hues. All of us who grew up in Teddy’s generation, or earlier, can remember when the only Afro-American males cast as sex symbols were mulatto, light skinned dudes with “good hair.” Much like the women most often cast as romantic/erotic interests in black music videos today.
Since white men, like white women, were the standard of beauty in a society that openly proclaimed white is right, and brazenly enforced racist standards in every aspect of American life by law and custom, the Afro-American romantic balladeers were often compared with their white male counterparts – even conferring nick names like “The Sepia Clarke Gable.” We also remember how most black women thought Harry Belafonte was “handsome” and Sidney Portier was “ugly.”
I say “most” black women because there were, to be sure, some exceptions. Fortunately for me, my mother was one of those exceptions. Unquestionable one of the most beautiful and elegant women in St. Augustine Florida, regardless of class or color, Mom was relatively tall, beige and as the daughter of a great dressmaker had impeccable taste in clothes.
Suffice it to say that comparisons with Lena Horne were commonplace, but I always thought they were being too generous to Lena. Mom had such a Jones for very dark men that it was the subjects of jokes at Thanksgiving dinners with her family – who ranged from dark chocolate on her father’s side to light, bright very damn near white on her mothers side; some of them had blue eyes and blue veins too.
My Daddy, George Benjamin Jr., was as black as an ebony statue, and my mother thought he was the most beautiful man ever, physically and temperamentally. she used to say “when God made your Daddy he broke the mould; George Benjamin was one of a kind.” And she routinely told me that dark men were beautiful. Widowed in her early twenties Mom was a single woman who ran her own beauty business, and she had legions of suitors of all colors – although she always became enraged when white men hit on her. The importance of having such a mother is that unlike some of my dark skinned peers I always thought I was fine, and I conducted myself that way.
Furthermore, my role models for what a hip ladies man was supposed to be were the men my mother chose, especially “RB,” who, after my father, was the great love of her life. Listening to him reminiscing about Senegalese soldiers he met in France during world War II, I asked RB what they looked like. He said nonchalantly: ‘They look like just like me.” And although some folks thought RB was “black and ugly” an wondered out loud what she saw in him, Mom was always talking about how “fine” RB was, and sighing over the way he was built. She loved the “jazzy” way he dressed – in fact she routinely gave him a Royal Stetson hat on his birthday often picked his clothes – and would praise the way he could talk sweet talk: “RB can talk a gopher out of his hole!” she would say.
So I learned from the belle of the ball how the game goes, what beautiful women of “particular” taste liked in a man. Hence I felt if I kept in good shape, dressed with style and knew what to say out of my mouth I’d be awright with the ladies. And that’s been the story of my life. And then there was the fabulous Nat King Cole who, like guitarist George Benson, eventually put his instrument aside in favor of singing because it was more lucrative.
A romantic balladeer Nat was a genuine matinee idol and heart throb; the first of his ebony hue to achieve that status in black America, and remarkably his style beguiled white women too. Even in the racist south. Like Nat, Teddy’s voice drove women mad; Which is why he could appear in “Women Only” concerts and fill huge auditoriums!
Nat King Cole
Virtuoso Pianist, band Leader, Crooner
Since I was enchanted by the ladies early on, I was also crazy over love songs…and thus deeply admired the great singers who sang them. As a boy I was thrilled by the sound Italian Neapolitan love songs, romantic arias from Grand Opera’s, and the Broadway show tunes that Julius La Rosa and Mario Lanza sang; as well as the middle of the road pop tunes sung by Perry Como, Dean Martin and Rosemary Clooney. I enjoyed the Irish tenors too, especially the turn of the century songs from the “Gay Nineties” like “The Sidewalks Of New York” sung in Barber Shop Quartet style. I just loved pretty music!
But once I heard the Afro-American romantic balladeers I flipped out and became an ardent partisan of their style; I dreamed of sing like them. Let me say at this point, just to set the record straight: I believe the black American female singing voice is the most beautiful instrument that ever made music on this earth. But that is a subject for another essay. Here I wish to confine my commentary to the subject of Afro-American males that sing love songs, because they were speaking directly to the ladies and thus their music was an invaluable aid to the age old rituals of seduction.
Among the first singers who caught my ear were Herb Jefferies, Billy Eckstein, and Arthur Prysock. Part of the reason they attracted me was because they were all deep baritones and I was a basso by the time I was 14. And although most of the gorillas – i.e. tough guys – sang the high falsetto tenor parts in the doo wop groups that were sprouting up everywhere – I continued to think of the bass cleft as the true providence of macho men. At first I didn’t notice something all three of these singing sex symbols, who had the ladies swooning, shared in common: They were all light skin with curly hair like the fabled “Latin lovers” that Rudolph Valentino made the paragon of male heart throbs back in the early years of the twentieth century.
Father Of A Tradition?
Years later when I looked back on this group of balladeers, I dubbed the genre “The Art Of the Mulatto Crooners.” For the most part their repertoire was based in two traditions, Afro-American blues and “the great American popular song book.” Virtually all Afro-American popular singers of that era started out singing blues based songs, often fronting bands. And these blues songs were generally written by black songwriters. The great American pop songs from Broadway shows and Tin Pan Alley however were written for the most part by songwriters who were largely white and Jewish – George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, etc.
These songs, many of which came from Broadway musicals, were characterized by well constructed melodies, complex harmonies and sophisticated lyrics. For these reasons this music became staples in the repertoire of jazz musicians and are referred to as “standards,” tunes which any accomplished instrumentalist is expected to know by heart. And for this same reason they became the text for singers who were greatly influenced by the jazz instrumentalists.
The great Billy Daniels from Jacksonville Florida – whose gorgeous “high yaller’ daughter Yvonne enchanted my teenage years with her silky soulful sensuous voice as a D.J. on WOBS in Jacksonville – also belongs to this tradition, although unlike the others he was a tenor. While there were certainly dark skinned men who made seminal contributions to the art of the sophisticated romantic balladeer – Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, and Louis Armstrong who began it all – they were not cast as sex symbols and paragons of male beauty like the mulatto men.
On the Cover Of Jet Magazine
That Old Mulatto Magic!
Fortunately, by virtue of the marvelous alchemy of “You Tube,” it is possible to view these artists in some of their most celebrated performances. For instance Herb Jefferies can be seen in all his splendor singing his great hit “Flamingo” with the Ellington Orchestra; while colorfully attired professional dancers perform an interpretive dance whose choreography was based on the lyrics.
Long before the birth of the modern video the record companies used to produce video shorts of musicians called “soundies.” All the stars had them, and an amazing number and variety of them have found their way to You Tube. These videos from back in the day were shot on film and the quality of the sound and images are amazingly clear. Some are actual scenes from Hollywood musicals.
On the Flamingo video Herb Jefferies looks like a tan Anglo-Saxon, but since being “colored” was an arbitrary social construction one’s cultural identity was what mattered; the life “behind the veil” that gave Afro-African Americans what Dr. Dubois called “a second sight in this American world.” The video of Billy Daniels performing his signature hit “That Old Black Magic” underscores this point.
He too could pass for white if he had a mind to. Incidentally, both of these Mulatto stars married white women; which was a risky thing to do in apartheid America, and thus might suggest that, like the gifted Harlem Renaissance novelist Jean Toomer, might have been trying to escape the “negro” identity that was foisted upon them by law and custom in spite of their alabaster complexions.
Herb Jefferies, who was also a star in black western movies, where he played a singing cowboy, married the famous burlesque queen Tempest Storm. And it was rumored that Billy Eckstine, a great singer and journeyman trombonist, was under cover lovers with the German born movie star Marlene Deitrict. So these romantic balladeers were cross over heart throbs who thrilled the ladies from all nations with their seductive art.
The Fabulous “Mr. B”
This mulatto paradigm of the romantic balladeer/sex symbol changed radically with the emergence of the Delta Bluesmen and Rhythm & Blues singers, when dark skinned men like B.B. King and James Brown filled the erotic fantasies of the masses of working class black women – particularly in the south. My mother, for instance, was wild about James Brown and never missed a show when he came to town. James was a bonified sex symbol – with his boxer’s physique, Sugar Ray Robinson style, dazzling dancing, gospel / blues singing style, and passionate preacher’s voice James was the bomb. I first saw him in 1956, when he was enjoying his first big his “Please,” Please” “Please.” It was during the Sunday matinee show at the Royal Palm Café in Jackson Florida.
A Rhythm&Blues Innovator…
Who Changed The Color Of Romantic Balladeers
James Brown In the Beginning
The shows on these occasions consisted of a talent contest between singing groups, amateurs who were accompanied by the professional house band. Then there would be a pause, the curtains closed, and suddenly a jocular well dressed M.C. would appear from behind the curtains and announce “Ladies and Gentleman its star time at the Royal Palm Café!” Then he would introduce the main attraction. On this occasion it was a new group called “James Brown and The Famous flames.”
He came on with the band rocking, and James was getting down with the “Mash Potatoes,” a style which become the basis for all of his moves on the dance floor. And James Browns moves became the basis for the choreography of some of the greatest dancers in the rhythm & Blues tradition – Prince, M.C. Hammer and Michael Jackson for instance – which is to say the greatest dances in the American vernacular tradition!
I have made my comments specific to Rhythm & Blues idiom dancers because I don’t wish to give the impression that there was a paucity of singers who were also great dancers in the Afro-American tradition before the advent of R&B. There have always been great song and dance artists – male and female – in the black American tradition: check out the video “Calloway’s Boogie” or “Cab’s Dancing” if you want to see a see one of the great song and dance men of all times.
James Brown was an original, and so were his contemporaries Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jackie Wilson, et al. They were exciting singers and great dancers. These were among the artists who laid the foundation for Rhythm & Blues. But Teddy Pendergrass stems from a different tradition: The Male Quintet. These groups were for the most part products of the city. A great many of them from Chi-Town, Philly and New York. Compared to the rough edged soulful southern blues sound these groups were urbane and highly polished. The lead singers often of these groups all became heart throbs and sex symbols, and they ran the entire color spectrum in black America.
Two of the most influential of these groups were the Dells, who hailed from Chicago, plus Harvey and the Moonglows. Clearly the roots of Teddy Pendergrass’ style can be heard in the sensuous baritone vocal timbres and passionate styles of Marvin Junior, lead singer with the Dells, and Harvey Fuqua, the Moonglow’s lead. Both of these brothers were of hues darker than blue and the ladies loved them. This is the tradition Teddy inherited, and he took it to new heights. The fact that Teddy was around 6’4” and built like an athlete greatly enhanced the power of his voice to beguile the ladies. And at times his performances appear to be a kind of mass hypnotism/seduction.
The Mighty Dells Featuring Marvin Junior
Marvin Jr. Was Teddy’s Role Model
Harvey and the Moonglows!
Harvey Fuqua: One Of The First Sexy R&B Baritone Leads
I have a video in my procession of Teddy performing “Close The Door” in live performance, and he was the consummate showman as sex symbol. He is dressed is white, fitted slacks and wife beater which appear to be silk. The whiteness of his costume accents his ebony skin. And as he sings, gestures and gyrates, the women go crazy. It is obvious that this man loves himself and knows his beauty; the whole performance comes across as some sort of public mating ritual as he struts around the stage like an ebony peacock.
Teddy Working The Crowd…
And Beguiling The Ladies!
Teddy’s performance is at once a shameless display of unbridled narcissism and a celebration of the unique beauty of the dark skinned Africoid male. Every time he would croon a lyric like “I know what to do with it/If you ever let me get it!” then bust a provocative move, the women would freak out, screaming to the top of their lungs. Women of all colors, classes and ethnicities. This is quite something to witness for one who remembers when even Afro-Americans would chant sarcastically: “If you are white you’re right / If you’re Yellow you’re mellow / If you’re tan you can stand /If you’re brown stick around / But if you’re black get back!”
* To See Teddy in all his glory click this link:
Nat King Cole
(This is an old movie clip, Billy daniels is the second singer on this clip)
Here Harvey is singing a pop tune in an attempt to “cross over”
The Village Of Harlem