Olivia Lichtenstein & Nick Bedu
If You Don’t Know Teddy Pendergrass by Now
by Jay S. Jacobs
In the early 1980s, Teddy Pendergrass was just on the cusp of superstardom. The Philly-native soul man was known for his silky voice, charismatic performances and athlete’s physique. He had platinum albums, sold-out concerts and was a massive sex symbol – he’d often do “Women only” concerts and sell out the joints every time.
Pendergrass was first noticed as part of the legendary 1970s “Sound of Philadelphia” movement, spearheaded by songwriter/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of Philadelphia International Records. Teddy was hired as the drummer for local band Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, but quickly his sultry voice and stage presence had him singing many of the leads. He was the voice of all the Blue Notes’ biggest hits – classics like “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck” and “Wake Up Everybody.”
Towards the late 1970s, Pendergrass was tired of being the voice of someone else’s group and decided to go solo. (This also had to do with money issues between Melvin and the rest of the band, which splintered when Pendergrass left.) He became one of the defining voices of the nascent “quiet storm” genre of music – spawning several solo singles like “Close the Door,” “Love TKO.” “Turn Off the Lights” and a cover of Peabo Bryson’s “Feel the Fire,” though those songs did better on the R&B charts than the pop charts.
That all changed on March 18, 1982. On Lincoln Drive, a notoriously twisty road on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pendergrass’ brand-new Rolls Royce lost control. While the cause of the accident is unclear – Pendergrass had been drinking slightly, but he insisted the brakes gave out – the conclusion was definitive. Pendergrass damaged his spinal cord in the crash and was paralyzed from the chest down.
Pendergrass disappeared from public life for a couple of years, but eventually he returned to performing. His first single after the accident was a lovely duet called “Hold Me,” which is probably best remembered now as the first single released by his duet partner, a then-unknown singer named Whitney Houston. In 1985, he did his first post-accident concert performance in a big way – going up on stage to sing “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” with Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson at the legendary Live Aid concert. Pendergrass continued recording and even toured a bit until his tragic death in 2010.
Years later, British documentary filmmaker Olivia Lichtenstein was listening to some of Pendergrass’ old music. Lichtenstein realized that his life and career would make a fascinating movie. She reached out to Pendergrass’ old manager and family, both of whom promised to cooperate and help her track down others from Pendergrass’ life.
The night before the world premiere of Teddy Pendergrass – If You Don’t Know Me at the 27th annual Philadelphia Film Festival, I sat down with director Lichtenstein and co-producer Nick Bedu to discuss the film and the importance of it debuting in Pendergrass’ home town.
Why did you decide you wanted to do a movie about Teddy Pendergrass?
Olivia Lichtenstein: I’ve always been a soul girl. Soul was big in England. The first vinyl LP I ever bought was a compilation album called This is Soul. Anyway, I’ve always listened to Teddy Pendergrass. I loved that music. Then, I started listening to him again in the last few years. I didn’t really realize what had happened to him. I just thought: Oh, nobody talks about Teddy Pendergrass and they should, because he’s so incredible and he’s got this amazing voice. So, I had this feeling of I really had to make a film about him. I became possessed by it and went on a mission and raised finance and all. I contacted his former management, and met his widow, Joan Pendergrass. I said I want to do this, and she was incredibly helpful and supportive. I met his mother and his kids.
I was reading that Shep Gordon, who was Teddy’s former manager and talked extensively about Teddy in the documentary of his life Supermensch, played a big part in getting this film made. How did you get Shep involved?
Olivia Lichtenstein: What happened was I saw that movie and I just thought: Wow, that’s an extraordinary story. It needs to be told. I then went on the hunt for Shep. I managed to find an e-mail [address] for him. I sent him an e-mail and said, “I need to talk to you. Can you give me a number?” I was amazed, he sent me a number and said, “Call me.” I called him and said, “This is who I am…” He said, “I’ve done my research.” (laughs) I said, “I really want to make this film and need your help.” He said, “Sure,” and then they introduced me to Joan Pendergrass and introduced me to Ida Pendergrass [Teddy’s 100-year-old mother] and to his first wife Karen [Still Pendergrass]. That’s where it started to go forth.
How did coming to Philadelphia and seeing Teddy’s world make it come alive for you?
Olivia Lichtenstein: It really did, didn’t it?
Nick Bedu: It really did. As soon as you set foot [in the area] and start retracing the steps of Philly and getting to know it as a city, it’s a really, really great experience. Philly is one of those cities that has such a deep and rich musical heritage. It’s such a hotbed of talent. You feel it actually when you come in. We came from London, and London is very different to Philadelphia…
Yes, I’ve been there. It’s a great city.
Nick Bedu: You’ve been there, right. So, yeah, it just really brought it to life. To meet the characters and see the places…. Because it’s not huge, central Philadelphia. You go past places and “Oh, that’s where Teddy was at this point,” or “That’s where Teddy was at this point.” Suddenly, you’re really in the location and in the intimate experiences of his life.
Olivia Lichtenstein: You really get a sense of it, don’t you? Also, it’s so exciting because The Sound of Philadelphia was such a big thing. You know, Philadelphia International Records. To be able to meet people like Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and talk to them – I mean, those guys are like gods. The songs that they’ve written. You just think, I can’t believe it, those are just all the songs…
Nick Bedu: How special they are.
Olivia Lichtenstein: … that I grew up with. I remember being a teenager and a fan. It’s incredible evocative. It’s still all here. You’re walking down Broad Street and now you see that it’s called Gamble and Huff Walk [at the 300 block of S. Broad Street]. You start to look at the places as well with the eyes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, really. Where Philadelphia International Records used to be. We met Questlove [of the Roots], who spoke very eloquently about Philadelphia and how all these musicians know each other and come together. It has this unique quality, a very creative place. He happened to go to elementary school next door to Philadelphia International Records. Because his own family was very into music, he knew from a very young age and was very aware of Gamble and Huff and Teddy Pendergrass. It starts to bring it all home and paint it. That was one of the things we tried to do with the film, this juxtaposition of modern Philadelphia with Philadelphia then, through the archive, to get this continuum, really.
When Teddy started out with the Blue Notes, he was just a drummer, not a singer. Do you think even then he had ambitions to be a front man?
Olivia Lichtenstein: I think he was, because when he was 16, he recorded these three songs, which actually I did find. I did have [them all] in an earlier cut of the film, and it still pains me that I had to lose one of them. So, he recorded these three songs when he was 16, with this producer guy, and he never really heard anything more. He got rather despondent. He says it in the film, that he felt he had to beat his troubles away. That’s when he started drumming seriously. He then got a job as a drummer. But I think, in his heart, he was always a singer. Of course, he first sang at the age of two-and-a-half in church, solos, standing on a chair.
Teddy was such a charismatic performer – and man – that it seems almost inevitable that he would find stardom, and yet there were a lot of barriers in his way. Why do you think in the long-run he was able to shine so bright so quickly, even if sadly fate sort of snuffed it out?
Olivia Lichtenstein: He was poised. He was on the brink of superstardom. There’s always this term, crossover, that people talk about, that I always find slightly [awkward], as if there is some distinction between black and white music. It just seems ridiculous. But he was at that point, where he was about to cross over. He was just about to be this global superstar. He would have had a name that would have immediate recognition. Then, obviously, the accident did change everything. Not the least, he didn’t appear in public for two years or more. He had to learn to sing again. Of course, the quality of his voice was still wonderful, but he didn’t have I suppose the same power, because of the control of the breath and everything. Although, he did incredible work, even after the accident, as well. He really did come back and have gold records and went on recording. But I think it prevented him somehow from being as well known to that larger audience than he would have been.
Obviously, Teddy is no longer here to speak with, and Harold Melvin is gone, too. What other people from Teddy’s past were vital for you to talk with?
Olivia Lichtenstein: Certainly, his band, because they lived with him and toured with him. They obviously really knew about the music and understood his talent. They are all in it, which is fantastic. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Shep Gordon. Danny Marcus and Alvin Strong, who worked with him. Also, his friends, his kids, his mum, you know. Our film really takes in that part of his life, up until Live Aid, really, when he comes back to the stage.
I was there.
Nick Bedu: Oh, wow, that’s amazing.
Olivia Lichtenstein: Wow. It must have been incredible.
It was, I was pretty close to the stage and when he came out, everyone went crazy. I did meet Teddy once also, backstage at a Peabo Bryson concert in the early ‘90s. He was a very nice man.
Olivia Lichtenstein: Oh, amazing.
It’s sad, but while he had a successful solo career, at least in the US, eight years after his death most of the songs which still get airplay are the Blue Notes songs, and not everyone even knows that Teddy was singing on classics like “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” or “Wake Up Everybody.” Do you see this movie as a way to reintroduce Teddy to a new generation?
Nick Bedu: Yes, I think so.
Olivia Lichtenstein: Yes. Definitely, yes. That’s the hope. That’s the hope.
Nick Bedu: We certainly hope so, because it deserves to be heard. His voice deserves to carry on singing. Obviously, although that may be true, he’s still a hugely revered figure. Newer artists have sampled him. His music still does live on in other forms of music, too.
Olivia Lichtenstein: It shapes it and forms it.
Nick Bedu: Absolutely.
Also, a lot of people have covered his songs.
Olivia Lichtenstein: They have, they have. Also, what’s interesting is people who have been working on the film in post-production and all of that stuff – who are younger, in their 20s and stuff – have all said, “Wow! I just didn’t know about this guy. It’s not even my kind of music, but he’s so amazing. I started downloading and listening to it.” So, I really think that it is going to reinvigorate his catalogue, which is great. Also, those solo songs, when you’ve heard them a few times, they just blow you away. You hear a lot of them in the film.
What were some of the things you were most surprised to find out about Teddy through the interviews you did making the film?
Olivia Lichtenstein: His complexity, I suppose. He was an extremely clever man. Extremely articulate. Unbelievable strength to be able to contend with that tragedy. He went on to get his high school diploma, which he hadn’t gotten before. Went on to form a foundation for people with spinal cord injuries. Great compassion and empathy. He was many layered. It was like peeling back the onion skin. It makes it great as a subject for a film.
Obviously, Teddy’s story took a tragic turn over on Lincoln Drive just when he was on the precipice of superstardom. As filmmakers, how difficult was it to show his life after the accident, how things really changed for Teddy overnight?
Olivia Lichtenstein: It is always difficult, and obviously one wants to do it with sensitivity. We were really helped with that because we met and interviewed his psychotherapist, Dan Gottlieb, who is an extraordinary man. He himself is quadriplegic and had an accident a couple of years prior to Teddy. He was uniquely suited to helping him, and kind of helped save his life, really. So, that part of the film, Dan tells the story really, and I think, I hope, it is incredibly moving.
You mentioned his return to the stage at Live Aid, when he came out with Ashford and Simpson. I have read that he wasn’t sure he wanted to do it. Do you feel he was happy that he conquered his fears and went out there?
Olivia Lichtenstein: I think so. I think it was a triumph. It was a moment of triumph. It was a moment of: He’s back. One of his cousins said, “I saw him up there, and I thought, ‘He’s back.’ Wheelchair or no wheelchair, he’s back.”
Nick Bedu: Yeah. It takes a lot to do that.
I really loved “Hold Me,” his comeback single after the accident, which is now best remembered as the first single for his duet partner, Whitney Houston. Sadly, I don’t think many people heard much of his other music after the accident. What were some of these later songs or albums that you feel people should discover?
Olivia Lichtenstein: I love “Joy.” “Hold Me” is a good one. Let me think… what else? I’ve been focusing so much on the earlier [stuff], because we were working with all the older songs. I’m trying to remember. There are so many others.
Nick Bedu: “In My Time.” A friend of mine in South Africa was telling me when he heard about the film that he grew up on Teddy’s music. Even in the apartheid days in South Africa. He grew up on his music. He remembers vividly sitting in his living room and watching for the first time the video of “In My Time,” and his dad absolutely crying his eyes out at the sight of Teddy in the wheelchair, singing those words. That meant a lot to him and everyone else.
His advocacy for victims of spinal cord injuries was also an important part of his life after the accident. What is still active from his advocacy?
Olivia Lichtenstein: His widow Joan runs a non-profit organization, The Teddy and Joan Pendergrass Foundation. She raises money for spinal cord patients. She’s extremely active in keeping his legacy alive, and also helping people who are in that position, and raising funds for them.
How important was it to you that the documentary debut at the Philly Film Festival, since this was Teddy’s home town?
Olivia Lichtenstein: Very. And to be the closing night film is such an honor. We just couldn’t be more delighted, because it seems like absolutely the place where it was filmed it should first be shown.
What can you tell me about the gig that will be performed after the screening by lots of his old bandmates?
Olivia Lichtenstein: We can just expect a celebration of Teddy, really. A reunion of the people who played with him. We hope everyone will get up and dance and…
Nick Bedu: … enjoy the moment.
Olivia Lichtenstein: Enjoy the moment, and remember him, and carry the flame forward.
I was hearing that the film will be playing on Showtime soon as well. When can we expect that?
Olivia Lichtenstein: That’s right. That will be next year. We don’t have a date yet.
On a totally different subject, I saw looking over your filmography that you also did a documentary on Kirsty MacColl, who was one of my favorites and I was lucky enough to interview and meet a few times while she was alive. How did that documentary come about and what was it like to make?
Olivia Lichtenstein: Oh, great. Oh, you know, it was heartbreaking. I made the film after she died, and I became very close to her mother. I stayed close to her mother until her mother’s death last year. Jean MacColl. She was an astonishing woman. I got to know Kirsty’s kids as well. It was just one of those terrible accidents. But again, just, what a talent, really. Just struck down in her prime. And an injustice at the heart of it as well, because, there was never justice for Kirsty… and this was what her mother Jean was fighting for. That was her campaign, because the people who were responsible for it in Mexico never really paid for what they did. That was actually heartbreaking.
Most of the other films you’ve made over the years have not seemed to be about music, although I do think you also did a film on Vera Lynn. How do you decide on what subjects you want to cover?
Olivia Lichtenstein: Sometimes, you just get this feeling that you have no choice and you’ve just got to do it, which I certainly felt with this film about Teddy. That’s when it’s great. That’s best, when it feels like it’s something imperative. You just have to tell the story. I don’t know, I think I’m just fascinated endlessly by people and the way that they behave. The things that they do. Trying to understand the human condition. So, anything that fits into that. And sometimes it’s just a job and you’re making a film. (laughs)
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 17, 2018.
Photos #1-2 ©2018 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
Photos #3 & 5. Courtesy of Storyvault Films. All rights reserved.
Photo #4 Courtesy of the Pendergrass Family and Storyvault Films. All rights reserved.
Photos #6 & 7 Neal Preston. Courtesy of Storyvault Films. All rights reserved.