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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Teddy Pendergrass, Sex Symbol Of ’79

Teddy Pendergrass had a tougher life than most sex symbols: an auto accident in 1982 paralyzed the "Love TKO" man from the waist down. Blues and Soul's David Nathan met and profiled Teddy at the height of his soul success.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

"As soon as I feel that enough groundwork has been done, I'll be there!"

So speaks the Teddy Bear himself, Mr. Teddy Pendergrass, and he's referring to exactly when he's going to give his European fans a chance to see some of the dynamic performances that have propelled him to the very top of the male vocalists of today.

Teddy, whose three albums have all exceeded the million-mark within the States is still waiting for that elusive hit record that will make the trip to Europe really worthwhile.

"I need something tangible to bring me across the water," he comments, "a couple of hits that will let me know that people really want to see me. Not the way it is right now, where I could go over there and people would wonder who I am!"

Not that the situation is that dire, we tried to tell Mr. P, since of course he does indeed have a large following in the UK--it's just that, for whatever reason, the powers-that-be haven't perhaps been over-successful in promoting Teddy and he hasn't yet come close to repeating the kind of acceptance he's had in the States as a solo singer since departing Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes a few years back.

The kind of acceptance within the States has meant that the young man has been selling out at concerts wherever he goes. "We started out on the road this year in May in smaller halls and once the new album (Teddy) was released, we went into the larger stadiums and I'm very pleased to say that we sold out everywhere--we just kept on going!

"I'd have to say that so far it's been a really, really good year--the whole year's been a highlight and I can't single out one particular event--everything's just been going very well."

Up until now, he's been doing one-nighters but Teddy says that for the rest of the year "we'll be doing week-long engagements which means the venues will be smaller and more intimate. But I'm kinda glad because it means that we don't have to take three truck-loads of equipment around with us everywhere!" Also, being stabilized in one place no doubt makes it easier on Mr P.

"Sure, those one-nighters can be very tiring and I mean tiring with a capital 'T'. But you have to maintain yourself. I realize that I'm in a professional league and I can't allow myself to fall short of that and what it involves. I've accepted the challenge of what touring means and I've been dealing with it. It means telling yourself that you're not tired when you really are but you teach yourself to adjust physically and mentally to what has to be done."

Teddy says that the fact that he's been travelling by bus--"basically by myself"--has been a big help since it's enabled me to have some time to myself in between gigs--to get inside my own head and really relax without pressure while travelling." Although the rest of the year will be spent still performing, Teddy will be flying back home to Philadelphia every other week and he's looking forward to the change of pace "because being in one venue at a time can be more comfortable".

Not that his one-nighters haven't been enjoyable! Teddy relates that one in particular was a standout--when he played to a 100% female audience at Chino Women's Prison during the summer.

"Now that was really something! It was a trip because naturally, a lot of women in prison find themselves becoming involved with other women--bisexuality and homosexuality develop in prisons--and I'd say that it was the first time a lot of those ladies had put on a dress since they'd been in there. And then some of those girls who were sitting on other girls' laps got up and sat in their own seats during the performance and I think that 90% of the women in their really looked very feminine--like they'd gotten ready for the occasion. It just made me ask some of them what good-looking ladies like them were doing in a place like that!"

The performance came during Teddy's season on "For Ladies Only" concerts which he says were attended "by 80% women. I don't know if it turned any of my male fans off but then I didn't consider that! I do know that I ended up with quite a collection of ladies' underwear after the shows!"

Now, before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion, let's quickly emphasize that Teddy--whose image as a sex-symbol has been somewhat cast--was the recipient of same from members of his audience obviously moved to give him souvenirs and momentos of his performance! "What did I do with the underwear?" he laughs. "Donated it to a museum, of course!"

Security isn't the problem it might be for Teddy at such concerts "because I have security people with me all the time and it's just about rushing off stage and into the dressing room and then out!" But one problem that has been created as a result of the image that's been built of tantalizing Teddy is the fact that "women generally have a preconceived notion of what I'm about which can be embarrassing. It can be an inconvenience too because if I want to just go out, a whole bunch of ladies might decide to just chase me down the street!"

Teddy says that he doesn't see himself "quite the way I guess I've been perceived. I don't think of myself as a sex symbol although if the ladies dig me, hey, that's fine. My attitude to the guys--because I know there's a lot of jealousy--is simply this: you work your side and I'll work mine!"

Teddy confesses, however, that in one-to-one situations, the image that's been created can be a problem. "Ladies just don't believe that I'm for real and that I'm sincere. They think that there are women all around me all the time and I have to let them see that I'm being honest and all I ask is that they give me a chance to be sincere with them--so, yes, it can be a problem." Well, guys, we should all have such problems!

And problems are something that at present Teddy doesn't seem to have too many of, although there are, of course, certain goals and aims he still has. One focuses on the need for a hit crossover single.

"Fortunately, black music is being accepted more and more by the media for what it is and what it has done. It's now a bona fide part of the industry and it's almost become fashionable for some people to say that they dig a black artist, even if they really don't! But eventually, I feel that the need for that crossover concept has to change--it will be demolished because people will accept music as music and not continue always to categorize.

"Meanwhile, however, we do have a plan to infiltrate," Teddy chuckles, "because we want to win over those die-hards!"

Apparently, Teddy's singles--"Close The Door" and "Turn Off The Lights" (both big, big r&b hits) were considered "too forward by pop radio stations for them to play. And yet they'll play Rod Stewart's 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy', with lines like 'if you want my body'! Now how much more 'forward' can you be than that? So that's no real excuse, is it? So what we've got to do is just push it into those pop places until they accept what we're doing."

Teddy acknowledges that some of his material "may have been a bit too black in terms of vernacular, the way the lyrics are expressed and it may be necessary to put some of what we want to say in simpler terms for pop acceptance but we're not going overboard to compromise." He says that at some point "we probably will go with something which will be palatable to both pop and r&b markets intentionally but I don't know if the time is here yet for us to do that, although we are considering putting one tune on the next album which may be in that vein.

"Right now, it's a choice between a ballad and a funky cut--we already have one that's going on there, we just haven't decided if the other one should be another funky thing or not."

Either way, Teddy is certain to please his many fans who seem to like whatever he does. "People generally do seem to like me better on ballads," he says, "and of course, I love doing them because it gives me a chance to stretch out more, get truly black!! You know, downhome, for real! But you have to put in some really choice funky tunes too because people want to hear those as well."

Teddy feels that "the disco thing has been milked to the extreme and although people will always want to dance, they seem to be saying that right now, they'd also like a break to listen to some good songs. The slower tunes have been there all the time--I think people are just getting more conscious of them these days."

Fans will get a chance to hear both some slow-n-mellow and some up-n-funky tunes on Teddy's album, a live set due out soon. "We recorded two different segments of my shows--one at the Shubert here in Philly and the other at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles--so you get two different 'hellos' and two different 'goodbyes'!" The album will also contain two studio cuts, one produced by Gamble & Huff and one produced by Teddy himself.

"Oh yes, I'm getting into production, and that's something I'll be doing a whole lot more of, I hope." It seems that Teddy did in fact cut some things on himself about 18 months ago--although none of the material has yet been released. He says that he expects to record some more material on himself in the future.

That, of course, is whenever he can find time. As it stands, his itinerary for 1980 is beginning to take shape and it includes his first stint in Las Vegas. "That should be in February and the reason we're doing it is because Vegas is a key factor in any major artist's career. Because, when the records eventually stop selling in droves, you can work there and just continue to earn consistently good money. So you could say that it's a preparatory move for the future." Not that Teddy has to worry right now about not selling any records!

One of the things he does have to worry about is completing the furnishing on his recently acquired mansion in Philadelphia. "It has 34 rooms in all and sure, I've been in each one--but some only for a few minutes!" he laughs. "I want it to be like my own little city--I'm going to use all the space for something or the other!"

Since he purchased the house in May and went on the road at the same time, he hasn't had much time to actually be in the house--"so it's not furnished to any extent yet, but since I'll be coming back here every other week, that's what I'm going to be doing--when," Teddy quips, "I don't have to do interviews like this on my off-days!"

And, dear B&S readers, before you get worried, let's reassure you that we're quite fortunate because indeed, Teddy doesn't generally do said interviews when he's not working! He's aware however that B&S has been championing his cause for some time now so it's through our pages that he's asked that we pass on this message to his British fans: "If you want to see me, write to the record company and tell them to get working on giving me a hit so that I can get over there because I certainly do want to!"

So, y'all get pen to paper because as and when Teddy Pendergrass eventually does hit Europe, you're in for some dynamic and exciting and thoroughly entertaining performances, because the Teddy Bear truly has it all together!

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