Soul Serenade: The Soul Children, “The Sweeter He Is”

The Soul ChildrenWe’ve heard about one-hit wonders and even no-hit wonders but what about groups that had multiple hits and still manage to be forgotten when people talk about classic soul? The Soul Children recorded for Stax Records at the height of the label’s popularity, they had three Top 10 pop hits, and they were mentored by the legendary songwriting/producing team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. And yet they’re often not even part of the discussion of the glory days at Stax.

Hayes and Porter put the Soul Children together in 1968. The lineup included two women and two men and the intention was that the group would take up the slack left at Stax when Sam & Dave had to return to Atlantic Records after the infamous contract dispute between the two labels. The original Soul Children lineup included Norman West, John Colbert (a.k.a. J. Blackfoot), Anita Louis, and Shelbra Bennett. Colbert already had a career that included some solo singles as well as a stint as the lead singer for the Bar-Kays when they reorganized after the plane crash that killed four members of the group as well as Otis Redding. Louis sang backup on some Hayes/Porter productions, Bennett was a singer signed to Stax, and West had replaced William Bell in the Del-Rios but hadn’t found any success as a solo act after that.

“Give ‘Em Love,” a Hayes/Porter production, naturally, was the debut Soul Children single in 1968. The single’s Top 40 success on the R&B chart pointed to even more success ahead. That promise was realized when the group’s second single, “I’ll Understand,” did even better, reaching the #29 spot on the R&B chart. Still, pop success was proving to be elusive until the Soul Children released their fourth single, “The Sweeter He Is.” The two-part single was a Top 10 hit on the R&B chart and the group finally found some pop success when the record managed a #52 showing on the pop chart. As was the case with nearly all of the Stax Records of the day, the backing musicians on the Soul Children records included luminaries like Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Jr, Duck Dunn, and Hayes himself.

The Soul Children

The Soul ChildrenThe group only had a minor hit when they tried their luck with a slowed down version of the Sam & Dave smash “Hold On I’m Coming.” The single managed to crawl into the R&B Top 50 but did not cross over to the pop chart. The fate of the Soul Children seemed to be sealed when Hayes stopped working with them in order to focus on his solo career. They didn’t give up, however. They recorded a couple of albums including one at Muscle Shoals and released several unsuccessful singles. Then, in 1972, the Soul Children made their comeback with “Hearsay,” a song written by West and Colbert that turned out to be their biggest hit to date reaching #5 on the R&B chart and #44 on the pop chart.

The Soul Children appeared at the legendary Wattstax concert in Los Angeles in 1972. After a few less successful singles, the group returned to the upper reaches of the charts in 1974. “I’ll Be Your Other Woman” turned out to be their biggest hit, reaching #3 on the R&B chart and #36 on the pop chart.

Storm clouds were hanging over Stax when the Soul Children left the label in 1975. At the same time Bennett, who had sung lead on “I’ll Be Your Other Woman,” changed her name to Shelbra Deane and left the group for a solo career. The remaining trio signed to Epic Records in 1976. They had some success with singles for the label notably the #19 R&B hit “Can’t Give Up a Good Thing” in 1978. During their time at Epic, the Soul Children reunited with Porter who produced an album called Where Is Your Woman Tonight? in 1977. When Stax was resurrected by Fantasy Records in the late 1970s, Porter brought the group back home. Unfortunately, the one album that the group recorded for the newly reconstituted label, Open Door Policy, was not successful and they decided to call it a day in 1979.

The Soul Children put 15 singles into the R&B charts and five on them into the pop chart. When the subject of classic soul comes up they have earned a place in the discussion.

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Soul Serenade: Garland Green, “Jealous Kind Of Fella”

Garland GreenA couple of weeks ago I wrote about Danny White, a southern soul singer who toiled for years looking for a hit that proved elusive. This week, I’ll take a look at a singer who managed to find that hit, even reaching to Top 20 on one occasion, before fading from the memory of most people.

Garland Green was born in Mississippi, one or eleven children. He joined the great northern migration when he moved to Chicago at the age of 16. Green was still in high school when his singing talent came to the attention of Argia Collins, a local restaurateur. Collins became Green’s patron and paid for him to attend the Chicago Conservatory of Music where Green studied voice and piano.

While he was in school Green began to sing in the clubs around town and he won a talent contest at a place called the Trocadero. The win earned him the chance to open a show for Lou Rawls and Earl Hines. Joshie Jo Armstead was in the audience the night of the concert. Armstrong had written songs with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and she saw something in Green. Armstrong arranged for Green to record in Detroit and the resulting single, “Girl I Love You,” found enough local success that MCA Records picked it up for national distribution on their Revue Records imprint.

Green recorded a few more singles for Revue before being moved up to MCA’s most prominent label, Uni Records. “Jealous Kind of Fella” was a song co-written by Armstead and Green along with R. Browner, and M. Dollinson. When the single was released in 1969 it raced up the charts, reaching #5 on the R&B chart and winning a Top 20 spot on the pop chart while selling a million copies. Unfortunately, the follow-up single, the oddly titled “Don’t Think I’m a Violent Guy,” failed to come anywhere near matching the performance of “Jealous Kind of Fella,” not even cracking the Top 100. That put an end to not only Green’s association with MCA but his partnership with Armstead as well.

Green landed at Cotillion Records, an Atlantic subsidiary. He released five singles for the label but only the Donny Hathaway-produced and arranged “Plain and Simple Girl” found any success. The single was a Top 20 R&B hit but again didn’t crack the pop Top 100. The lack of success led Green to depart Cotillion for Spring Records. There he released five more singles including “Let the Good Times Roll” (not the Shirley & Lee song), and “Bumpin’ and Stompin’.” None of the singles found anything more than minor success on the R&B chart which led Green to yet another label, RCA.

At RCA, Green released three more singles and an album that was produced by Leon Haywood. The search for another hit continued to come up empty for Green. He moved to California in hopes of changing his luck. There he recorded for an indie label called Ocean-Front Records. The album that Green released for the label was co-produced by Lamont Dozier but only the single “Trying to Hold On to My Woman,” a song that had been a hit for Dozier a decade earlier, found any traction, reaching #63 on the R&B chart.

There was no quit in Green, however. He continued to record and release his own records until 2011 when he signed a new record deal with a subsidiary of CDS Records called Special Soul Music. The following year, Green released his first album of new material in 29 years, the appropriately titled I Should’ve Been the One. Indeed.

Soul Serenade: Curtis Mayfield — Keep On Keeping On

Curtis MayfieldCurtis Mayfield was 14 years old when he joined the group that would become the Impressions. He was born in Chicago in 1942 and by the time he was seven, he was singing in the church’s gospel choir with a group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Mayfield became friends with Jerry Butler in high school and in 1956, he joined Butler’s group, the Roosters. The other members of the group were the brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks. Two years later, the group changed their name to the Impressions and added Sam Gooden to the lineup.

The Impressions had an early smash with Butler singing lead on “Your Precious Love” and it was enough to motivate Butler to leave the group to start a solo career. Mayfield followed him and co-wrote and played on Butler’s solo hit “He Will Break Your Heart.” But Mayfield wasn’t interested in being a sideman and soon returned to the Impressions who had replaced Butler with Fred Cash. It was the classic Impressions lineup of Mayfield, Gooden, and Cash which signed with ABC Records and released a string of hits which began in 1961 with “Gypsy Woman” and continued with “I’m So Proud,” “It’s Alright,” “Keep on Pushing,” “Amen,” “We’re a Winner,” and “Choice of Colors,” which would be the last hit that Mayfield recorded with the Impressions.

After 14 years with the group, Mayfield left the Impressions to start a solo career. That is where Keep On Keeping On, the new box set from Rhino Records begins. Rhino has lovingly collected Mayfield’s first four solo albums to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of Mayfield’s solo career and to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. The set begins with Mayfield’s first solo album, Curtis, which was released in 1970 and reached the Top 20 on its way to becoming a Gold Album. Curtis includes the hit singles “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” and “Move on Up.” In addition to its commercial success, Curtis was one of the most influential albums of its time, inspiring later socially conscious work by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Curtis Mayfield - Keep On Keeping OnA year after his successful debut as a solo artist, Mayfield returned with Roots, which reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart. While not quite as successful as the debut, Roots scored with hits like “Get Down,” “Beautiful Brother of Mine,” and “We Got to Have Peace.” Mayfield’s next effort, which is not included in this set because it was not a true solo album, was his incredibly successful soundtrack for the film Super Fly. The album went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts and pushed two singles, “Freddie’s Dead,” and “Superfly” into the Top 10.

In 1973, Mayfield released his third proper solo album, Back to the World. The album topped the R&B chart and returned Mayfield to the Top 20 on the pop albums chart. The album’s hit singles included “Future Shock,” “If I Were a Child Again,” and “Can’t Say Nothin’.” Mayfield’s fourth solo album and the final one collected in this set was released in 1974. Sweet Exorcist came within a whisker of the top spot on the R&B chart, settling at #2 and also found Top 40 success on the pop chart. The album’s success was driven by two hit singles, the title track, and “Kung Fu.”

Keep On Keeping On ends with the Sweet Exorcist album but fortunately, Mayfield’s career did not. He continued to record into the 1990s and standout albums from this period included Sparkle (1976) and Heartbeat (1979). “So In Love,” released in 1975, was the last Mayfield single to hit the pop chart but records like “Only You Babe” (1976), “You Are, You Are” (1978), and “She Don’t Let Nobody (But Me)” (1981), continued to find success on the R&B chart. In all, Mayfield scored more than 30 solo hits on the R&B chart to go along with a similar number of R&B hits during his time with the Impressions.

On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him during a show in Brooklyn. The accident ended his career as a guitar player but he could still write songs and sing, something he did to great effect on his final album, New World Order, in 1997. Mayfield died of complications from diabetes in 1999.

Curtis Mayfield is remembered for introducing social activism into soul music. The Impressions hits “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” and “We’re A Winner” became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and were often used by Martin Luther King to inspire marchers. Mayfield and the Impressions were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 (he was also inducted into the Rock Hall as a solo artist in 1999, one of a handful of double inductees). He received a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Just before he died, Mayfield was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Soul Serenade: Danny White, “Can’t Do Nothing Without You”

Danny WhiteFor every musician who becomes a household name, there are hundreds, probably even thousands who toil in clubs for many years, getting a whiff of success every now and then but never quite climbing that ladder to the top rung. At some point they must realize that they are never going to get there and yet, they toil on, maybe because they love music or maybe because it’s the only thing they know.

Danny White was born and raised in New Orleans. After serving in the Army in California he returned to the Crescent City and began his music career with a band called the Cavaliers who played at clubs like the Golden Cadillac and the Sho Bar. It was there that White was spotted by the legendary Huey “Piano” Smith who helped White get a deal with Ace Records. White recorded several singles for the label but none of them got much attention. During this time White also made a quickly forgotten single for Dot Records.

White didn’t give up, however, and before long he met a woman named Connie LaRocca who had started a label called Frisco. LaRocca’s A&R man was Al Reed and Reed had written a song called “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” White went into the studio with another legendary New Orleans musician, producer Wardell Quezergue, to record Reed’s song. The resulting single was a hit throughout the Gulf Coast and even though White tried hard to replicate the success of the single with tracks like “Loan Me a Handkerchief” and “Love is a Way of Life” he never seemed to be able to match that first Frisco single.

Danny White - "Can't Do Nothing Without You"At that point, looking for something to spur White’s career, LaRocca thought that the answer might be found in Memphis. It was there that White hooked up with the dynamic production team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter to record a gem of a ballad called “Can’t Do Nothing Without You.” Sadly, the single didn’t score and neither did a follow-up called “Note on the Table.” When Frisco shut down, White stayed in Memphis and signed with Stax so that he could continue to work with Hayes and Porter. The team recorded another powerful single, “Keep My Woman Home” b/w “I’m Dedicating My Life.” Among the backing musicians was guitarist Steve Cropper but large scale success continued to be elusive.

White’s moved on to record with producer Bowlegs Miller and their collaborations featured the Hi Records rhythm section as well as the Memphis Horns. Singles from that period included “Cracked Up Over You,” Don Bryant’s “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down,” and “Taking Inventory,” which was written by Eddie Floyd.

The provenance of the next White recordings remains unclear. The productions are credited to the New Orleans team of Marshall Seahorn and Allen Toussaint but it’s quite possible that tracks like “Natural Soul Brother” and “One Way Love Affair” were leftovers from the Bowlegs Miller sessions since the sound of those records is quite similar.

Despite the renown of the producers that White worked with and the quality of those recordings, White never quite managed to break through. He finished his recording career with a single for Kashe Records, “King For a Day,” b/w “Never Like This.” White was done as a performer by the end of the 1960s although he stayed in the game by becoming the manager of the Meters at the start of their career. But by the early 1970s, White quit the music business altogether and moved to Washington, D.C. He died in 1996 and although he never became a household name many of his recordings are treasured by soul music aficionados.

Soul Serenade: Rufus Thomas, “Walking the Dog”

Rufus Thomas“His music … brought a great deal of joy to the world, but his personality brought even more, conveying a message of grit, determination, indomitability, above all a bottomless appreciation for the human comedy that left little room for the drab or the dreary in his presence.” — Peter Guralnick

As Dr. King once famously said, longevity has its place. And when it comes to a career in music, longevity is something that’s widely sought after but all to seldom experienced. We often celebrate the singular achievement of the one-hit-wonders but there are some artists who have had the opposite experience. Rufus Thomas was one of those artists, with a career that spanned 75 years.

Thomas was Memphis, through and through. He was born there in 1917 and at the age of six, he was already performing in a school theatrical production. He played a frog. By the time he reached his teens, Thomas was touring around the South as part of a troupe called the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, performing as a comedian and tap dancer. When he came home to Memphis he would emcee vaudeville and talent shows at the Palace Theater on Beale Street. The talent show winners included the likes of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace.

At the age of 23, Thomas married Cornelia Lorene Wilson in a ceremony officiated by the Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin. He didn’t rely on income from his show business pursuits and took a day job at a textile bleaching plant. It was a job that Thomas worked for 20 years. He never stopped performing, however, and by the time he was in his 20s, Thomas was writing and singing his own songs. After making his professional singing debut at the Beale Street Elks Club, Thomas became a regular at the Memphis clubs including Currie’s Club Tropicana.

Thomas was 33 years old when he signed his first record deal with the tiny Dallas-based Star Talent label. There he recorded his first 78 r.p.m. single, “I’ll Be a Good Boy” b/w “I’m So Worried.” Although Thomas claimed to not be looking to get rich with the single he had to have been disappointed by the decidedly lackluster sales. “The record sold five copies and I bought four of them,” he once told the Dallas Observer. The record did succeed in garnering a positive review from the influential Billboard Magazine though. Thomas also recorded with Bobby Plater’s Orchestra for Bullet Records in Nashville but he was billed as “Mr. Swing” on those records and it was only years later that they were credited to Thomas.

The next stop for Thomas as a singer was at Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios where he recorded several sides for Chess Records. When none of them managed to find success, Thomas took his ebullient personality to radio station WDIA where he became a DJ. His afternoon radio show was called Hoot and Holler and his presentation of blues and R&B appealed to both black and white listeners. The radio career brought Thomas the kind of fame that he had failed to achieve as a singer but the audience that he built at WDIA allowed him to take another crack at music. In 1953, at the urging of Phillips, Thomas recorded “Bear Cat” as an answer record to Big Mama Thornton’s hit “Hound Dog.” The record reached #3 on the R&B chart making it Sun Records’ first national hit. Don Robey, the publisher of “Hound Dog,” didn’t like the record a bit and launched a copyright infringement suit that almost put Sun out of business before Elvis even showed up there.

But Phillips was famously looking for a white singer who could sound like a black singer and after he signed Presley he began releasing his black artists, including Thomas. His next single was for Meteor Records in 1956 but “I’m Steady Holdin’ On” failed to chart despite the playing of Lewie Steinberg who went on to be a co-founder of Booker T & the MGs.

By 1960, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton had started the Satellite Records label and it was there that Thomas first recorded with daughter Carla. “Cause I Love You” was successful enough regionally to allow Stewart to sign a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, a deal that proved lucrative for both parties until it was a near-disaster for one. But that’s a story for another time. In 1963, Thomas had a hit for Stax (as it had been by then renamed) called “The Dog” but it was the follow-up that would prove to be Thomas’ greatest success. “Walking the Dog,” a song written by Thomas, was released the same year and rose to the Top 10 on both the R&B and pop charts. The song was covered by the Rolling Stones a few months later on their debut album and over the years it has seen covers by Aerosmith, John Cale, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, Jackie Shane, and Ratt.

The success of “Walking the Dog” finally gave Thomas the chance to give up the job at the textile plant and focus on his music career. He continued the canine theme on Stax singles like “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog,” and “Somebody Stole My Dog” but perhaps his greatest contribution was as a mentor to the young artists that Stax was signing. There was a dry spell during which Thomas didn’t have much in the way of hits but the spell was broken in 1970 with his recording of “Do the Funky Chicken” which hit the Top 10 on the R&B chart and reached #28 on the pop chart. Al Bell, President of Stax at the time, produced the record along with Tom Nixon, and the Bar-Kays served as the backing band. Thomas would keep working with Bell and Nixon and that same year the team collaborated for Thomas’ first and only trip to the top of the R&B chart with “Do the Push and Pull.” A year later, “The Breakdown” was another hit for Thomas, making it to the #2 spot on the R&B chart and #31 pop.

After a few more minor hits for Thomas, who appeared at the legendary Wattstax concert, Stax went under in 1976. Thomas kept on touring the world. He called himself “the world’s oldest teenager” and “the funkiest man alive” and was known for energetic dances moves that were unexpected from a man in his 50s and for his flamboyant stage clothes. Thomas continued to be a presence on radio and television he also appeared in several movies including Mystery Train, Cookie’s Fortune, and the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Only the Strong Survive. He also continued his recording career, releasing music on labels like Alligator and Ecko.

In 1992, Thomas received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, When he reached the age of 80 in 1997, the City of Memphis renamed a street near the old Palace Theater Rufus Thomas Boulevard. That same year, Thomas received a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP and four years later he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2000, Thomas’ wife Lorene passed away and he followed her a year later. They are buried next to each other in Memphis.

Soul Serenade: Linda Creed, Songwriter

Linda Creed“Linda Creed was such a sweet young lady. She started out wanting to be a singer and she wasn’t a bad singer but she was a great, great writer. All you have to do is listen to her lyrics like on “Betcha By Golly, Wow.” Listen to those lyrics and see how she was able to make those lyrics like that. Look at her lyrics on “I’m Stone In Love With You.” These are great concepts. Her and Tommy Bell were meant for each other.”Kenny Gamble

You may not know her name and yet she was responsible, in part, for some of your favorite records. The more you learn about Linda Creed, the more you realize just how extraordinary her journey was from the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia to the top of the pop and soul charts. Her journey was as unlikely as it was spectacular.

Creed was born Linda Epstein in Philadelphia in 1948 and attended the city’s Germantown High School. Her ambition was to be a singer and she was still in high school when she realized that ambition by singing in a group called Raw Soul. Among the venues that the group played were the Philadelphia Athletic Club and Sid Booker’s Highline Lounge.

When she finished high school, Creed, like so many others before her, headed up the Turnpike to New York City to realize her dreams. She got a music business job working as a secretary for Mills music and in her spare time she worked on developing her lyric writing skills. But her dreams, like those of so many before her, died on the streets on the Big Apple and she returned home to Philadelphia, feeling defeated, eight months later.

All was not lost, however. Creed refused to give up and she was only 22 years old when her break came as Dusty Springfield recorded Creed’s song “Free Girl.” At around that time, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had gotten Philadelphia International Records off the ground and had formed a subsidiary company called Mighty Three Music. The third member of the trio was songwriter/arranger Thom Bell. Creed was signed to Mighty Three Music and she began working on songs with Bell. In 1971, Bell was producing the Stylistics and one of the songs they chose to record was a Bell/Creed composition called “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” The single was a hit, reaching #6 on the Billboard R&B chart and crossing over to Top 40 success on the pop chart.

It was the beginning of an incredibly successful collaboration between Creed, Bell, and the Stylistics. Other collaborations included the hits “You Are Everything,” “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up,” “People Make the World Go Round,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and “I’m Stone in Love with You,” the latter written with Anthony Bell. But the Stylistics were not the only group who had success with Bell/Creed songs. Bell also worked with the Spinners and they had hits with “Ghetto Child,” “I’m Coming Home” (with lyrics that were inspired by Creed’s time in New York), “Living a Little, Laughing a Little,” and “The Rubberband Man,” all written by Bell and Creed.

Linda CreedCreed got married in 1972 and her string of hits continued with tracks by Johnny Mathis (“Life is a Song Worth Singing,” later covered by Teddy Pendergrass), Phyllis Hyman (“Old Friend”), and others. In 1976, Creed and her husband, along with their baby daughter, left Philadelphia to live in Los Angeles. The future must have seemed bright but there were dark clouds on the horizon. That same year, Creed underwent a radical mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Not long after the surgery, Creed was asked to write the lyrics for a song (Michael Masser wrote the music) that would appear in a film that was being made about the life of Muhammed Ali. The song, first a hit for George Benson and then turned into an even bigger hit by Whitney Houston ten years later, was “The Greatest Love of All.”

By 1980, Creed and her family, which now included a second daughter, were back in Philadelphia. There, she had more success with Pendergrass (“Hold Me,” a duet with Houston), Johnny Gill (“Half Crazy”), and others. Over the years Creed’s songs have been covered by artists including Roberta Flack, Rod Stewart, Smokey Robinson, and Michael Jackson.

Whitney Houston’s version of “The Greatest Love of All” was released on March 18, 1986. Linda Creed lost her long battle with cancer less than one month later. I would like to think she knew that her lyrics, which were written while she was struggling with cancer and dealt with trying to cope with the challenges that life brings, helped to take the single to the top of the charts. It was one last beautiful message that Creed left us as her all-too-short life came to an end at the age of 38. A short life surely, but just as surely one of incredible achievement.

In 1992, Linda Creed was posthumously elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Soul Serenade: Teddy Pendergrass, “Love T.K.O.”

Teddy PendergrassHave you seen the new Showtime documentary Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me? I recommend it with a bit of reservation related to some rather dubious accusations that are thrown around by people who may, or may not, be reliable. The documentary tells the tragic story of a star who rose from humble beginnings to the verge of superstardom only to be disabled in a terrible automobile accident. But the film’s most important message and the one that makes it worthwhile viewing is that Pendergrass, in a wheelchair, his career seemingly over and intent on suicide, chose life.

Pendergrass grew up on the mean streets of North Philadelphia. He and his mother had moved there from South Carolina when Pendergrass was an infant. His father Jesse left the family early on and was later stabbed to death. The young Pendergrass began singing in church and had dreams of becoming a pastor, a dream he realized when he became an ordained minister at the age of ten. Around the same time, Pendergrass began to play the drums.

Pendergrass attended high school in North Philadelphia but dropped out in his junior year to pursue a career in music. He released one single, “Angel With Muddy Feet,” but it didn’t gain any traction. Pendergrass played drums for a number of local bands eventually landing in one called the Cadillacs (not the same group as the popular Cadillacs of New York City). At that time, Harold Melvin had founded a group called the Blue Notes and in 1970, when he heard Pendergrass play, Melvin asked him to become the group’s drummer. The Blue Notes hadn’t been able to find much success at that point. Then, one night Pendergrass sang along with the group from his drum chair. Melvin knew a good voice when he heard it and he moved Pendergrass from the drum set behind the group to the lead singer position center stage.

Things changed quickly for the Blue Notes after that and in 1971 they signed with Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. The first Blue Notes single for P.I.R. was a ballad called “I Miss You.” The song had been intended for the Dells but when they rejected it, Kenny Gamble, with the similarity of Pendergrass’ voice with that of Dells lead Marvin Junior in mind, chose Pendergrass to sing lead on the track with fellow Blue Note Lloyd Parks handling the falsetto parts and Harold Melvin himself handling an early rap part at the end of the song. “I Miss You” was a major hit on the R&B chart, reaching #4 while almost making it into the Top 50 on the pop chart. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were on their way but much bigger things were still ahead.

The second Blue Notes single was once again a song originally intended for another artist, in this case, Labelle. A scheduling conflict prevented the Philadelphia trio from recording the song and it fell into the lap of the Blue Notes. It was a huge break for the group because “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” was one of Gamble and Huff’s most magnificent creations. The resulting single rose to the top of the R&B chart hit the Top 10 on the pop chart and made Teddy Pendergrass a star. There was just one problem — most people thought that the guy out front with the big voice was Harold Melvin.

Pendergrass kept leading the way on subsequent Blue Notes hits like “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” “Wake Up Everybody,” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” At some point, Pendergrass became unhappy with the way Melvin was handling the group’s finances, i.e. paying himself much more than the other group members, including Pendergrass. At the same time, Pendergrass was upset that he wasn’t getting the recognition that he had earned as the lead voice on all of those hits. He asked that the group be renamed Teddy Pendergrass & the Blue Notes but Melvin wasn’t having it and in 1975, Pendergrass left the group to pursue a solo career.

Teddy Pendergrass on his own was an immediate star. Continuing to work with Gamble and Huff, the self-titled Teddy Pendergrass debut album, which included the hit singles “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me,” went platinum in 1977. The following year the album Life is a Song Worth Singing, did even better with the singles “Only You” and especially the smash hit “Close the Door” spurring sales. The latter song was the one that turned Pendergrass into an undeniable sex symbol.

The next album, Teddy, topped the R&B chart for eight weeks helped by the songs “Come Go With Me,” “Turn Off the Lights,” and “Do Me.” After the Live Coast to Coast album, Pendergrass released the perhaps his greatest album, TP. The album included massively popular tracks like “Feel the Fire,” a duet with Stephanie Mills, the Ashford and Simpson song “Is It Still Good To Ya,” and the classic “Love T.K.O,” a song written by Cecil Womack and Gip Noble, Jr. and first recorded by David Oliver. The Pendergrass cover reached #2 on the Billboard R&B chart and skirted the Top 40 on the pop chart. By 1982, Pendergrass, with his four consecutive platinum albums, was perhaps the biggest star in R&B rivaling even giants like Marvin Gaye. In light of his crossover success, some in the media were even referring to him as the “black Elvis.”

Teddy PendergrassWith Pendergrass at the peak of his success, on the verge of becoming an international superstar, fate intervened. On the night of March 18, 1982, Pendergrass was driving his Rolls Royce in Philadelphia. In the passenger seat was a performer named Tenika Watson who Pendergrass met earlier that evening. Pendergrass lost control of the car and hit a tree. He and his passenger were trapped in the wreckage for 45 minutes. Watson, who was later revealed to be transgender, walked away with scratches. Pendergrass had been struck in the chest by a dome in the center of the steering wheel, a decorative feature. The blow severed his spinal cord and he was left a quadriplegic.

Unsurprisingly, Pendergrass became depressed in the wake of the accident. He spoke about committing suicide. Desperately looking for a way to prevent Pendergrass from taking his own life his psychiatrist, a quadriplegic himself, hit on the idea of holding a mock funeral so that Pendergrass could see how much he meant to his family and friends. The radical approach worked and Pendergrass emerged from the ceremony determined to live.

Still, it wasn’t going to be easy. Pendergrass was determined to continue his career and with the help of his doctor, an apparatus was created that when worn would help Pendergrass find enough air to sing. But his contract with P.I.R. had expired and other record labels had no interest in signing him given his physical condition. In 1984, Pendergrass finally got a new record deal and released the album Love Language. The album got as far as #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified as a Gold album.

One of the most emotional moments in popular music history came on July 13, 1985, at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia. Pendergrass had chosen a daunting venue for his return to live performance and he was so nervous that he almost didn’t go through with it. But when he rolled out on stage in his wheelchair during Ashford and Simpson’s set the ovation from his hometown crowd that greeted him seemed to go on forever. Together with his old friends he performed a tearful version of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” a song that had been a huge hit for Diana Ross and couldn’t have been more appropriate for the moment.

By 1988, Pendergrass was back on top of the charts with the single “Joy” and in 1994 he had another hit, albeit one of his last, with “Believe in Love.” Four years later, Pendergrass published his autobiography Truly Blessed. In 2002, he turned his Power of Love concert which had taken place at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles into the live album From Teddy, With Love. In 2006, Pendergrass announced that he would retire from the music business although he did return to perform at the Teddy 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope & Possibilities concert the following year. The concert marked the 25th anniversary of the accident while also raising money for the charity that Pendergrass had established.

Pendergrass faced colon cancer surgery in 2009. The surgery was successful but several weeks later he was back in the hospital with respiratory problems. On January 13, 2010, Teddy Pendergrass died at a hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, not far from where he had grown up. On that day we lost one of the greatest voices of our time. Pendergrass was only 59 years old at the time of his death but by choosing life all of those years earlier he was able to enjoy the love of his family, friends, and fans for many years after his accident.