Singer Teddy Pendergrass, the R&B love man whose chart-topping career was slowed but not stopped by a devastating car accident, died Wednesday. He was 59.
His son, Teddy Pendergrass II, said his father died in a hospital in suburban Philadelphia. The singer underwent colon cancer surgery eight months ago.
Philly native Pendergrass, like many of the great soul singers of his generation, began singing in church. Trained as a drummer, he began supporting vocalist Harold Melvin in 1969. Melvin reconstituted his vocal group the Blue Notes the following year with Pendergrass as lead singer.
In 1971, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were signed to Philadelphia International, the hometown label run by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and distributed by CBS. The association spawned a run of sleek, opulently orchestrated R&B hits featuring Pendergrass’ virile vocals; these included the No. 1 hits “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “The Love I Lost,” “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” and “Wake Up Everybody.”
Unhappy with Melvin’s authoritarian control of the group and the leader’s unwillingness to share its profits, Pendergrass exited the Blue Notes in 1975 for a slow-jamming solo career under the Philadelphia International banner. He collected his first No. 1 single in 1978 with the bluntly come-hither “Close the Door.”
His five consecutive top 10 hits in 1980-81 included “Can’t We Try,” “Love T.K.O.” and “I Can’t Live Without Your Love.” At his peak he was a major R&B sex symbol; female audience members frequently hurled their panties onstage at live gigs.
He scored four platinum albums during his peak years of 1977-81: “Teddy Pendergrass,” “Life is a Song Worth Singing,” “Teddy” (which reached No. 5 on the pop charts) and “TP.”
On March 18, 1982, Pendergrass was involved in a single-car accident in Philadelphia. He suffered a spinal cord injury that left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. However, after six months of hospitalization and subsequent convalescence, the singer returned to the studio. He issued his first post-accident album in 1984, and dramatically returned to live performing, in a wheelchair, at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia the following year.
Moving first to Asylum and then Elektra Records, Pendergrass continued to tally hits. He ascended to No. 1 on the R&B charts again with the 1988 single “Joy,” and collected Grammy nominations for both the single and its like-titled album. His last single to reach the apex was “It Should’ve Been You” in 1991.
In 1997, Pendergrass took a role in a touring company of the gospel musical “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.” He published his autobiography “Truly Blessed” in 1998. He returned to concert performing in 2001, finally retiring from the music business in 2006.
The indomitable performer founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a non-profit organization devoted to aiding victims of spinal cord injuries.
Pendergrass is survived by his son, two daughters, his wife, his mother and nine grandchildren.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)