musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Al Green’

Soul Singer Supreme: Teddy Pendergrass

There were many great vocalists to come along during the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up. I was a middle-class white kid but I always felt a special affinity for the black singers of that period, great soulful male voices such as Otis Redding, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of the Temptations (not to mention their solo stuff), Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Aaron Neville, Barry White, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls, and yes even the young Michael Jackson. I could venture further into deep soul territory and mention guys like Major Lance, Walter Jackson, General Johnson of the Chairman of the Board, George Jackson, James Carr, Sam Dees, Joe Simon, Syl Johnson, Lenny Williams from Tower of Power, Donny Hathaway, and Otis Clay. No doubt I’m leaving off many other deserving male soul singers from those years, but you get the idea: there were truly a bunch of great voices that emerged from those magical decades. And I barely touched on the many classic male vocal groups from that era such as the Spinners, O’Jays, Dramatics, Stylistics, and so many more. I’ll say it again; what a great era for music.

I recently read an online list of the “Greatest Singers” of that period and one noticeable omission was the late Teddy Pendergrass. What a great, great voice! Strong and passionate, full of fire and soul, and also capable of singing sweet love songs. Versatile and memorable. Teddy first gained fame as the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Philadelphia International vocal group that were one of the more successful of the Gamble & Huff production projects of the 1970s. Songs such as “The Love I Lost”, “Bad Luck”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, and “Wake Up Everybody” were stone soul classics that still sound vibrant today.

But after that string of big hits Teddy bolted from the comfort of the Blue Notes and went solo, releasing his self-titled debut album, Teddy Pendergrass, in 1977. That album, and 1978’s Life is a Song Worth Singing were full of more great songs, but they didn’t enjoy the same crossover pop success that he had enjoyed with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Nevertheless, Teddy continued his solo career, always charting high and racking up hits on the R&B charts, even if major Top 40 success proved elusive.

And then came the tragic accident. In early 1982, while driving home late one night in Philadelphia, Teddy lost control of his car, hitting a guard rail and two trees. He was trapped inside the car for nearly an hour. He suffered spinal cord injuries in the crash and was paralyzed from the waist down. That could have signaled the end of his singing career, but Teddy persevered, undergoing physical therapy (although he would never walk again), signing to a new label, and releasing several more studio albums in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Sadly, he died of respiratory failure at the still young age of 59 in 2010.

When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month, I picked up a very good collection of his music, titled The Real … Teddy Pendergrass, a 3-CD set (issued by Sony Music) that includes material from his time with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes plus wonderful tracks from his early solo albums for Philadelphia International. But that’s only one of many fine collections that feature his music. Any of them are worth owning if you are a fan of soul or R&B music. Soul deep indeed!

And I have a personal Teddy Pendergrass story to add, although I never met the great singer. I was working at a record store in Orlando, Florida back in the late 1970s and his third solo album, simply called Teddy, had been released. The record company sent us a life-sized cardboard standup display of Teddy to promote the album (note: this was indeed a vinyl record, well before the advent of CDs, downloads, and streaming). The manager of my shop at that time was a young black guy named Jimmy (a really cool guy who turned me onto some great music) who bore a very slight resemblance to Teddy. Well, Jimmy did something to piss off the owner and was fired one day. The owner, a grumpy old character named Nate, called me up the next morning and asked me to meet him at the shop so he could give me a set of keys. Upon arrival we walked up to the shop and Nate peered into the dark interior. “Jimmy! What the hell are you doing in there?  Open up!” Well, it wasn’t Jimmy inside the shop; it was that darned Teddy Pendergrass cardboard stand-up. I refrained from laughing right then and there, but that story became a classic among us record store workers for many years afterwards!

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Syl Johnson’s Soul

One of the more interesting — and extravagant — reissues in music last year was Complete Mythology by Syl Johnson, a collection quite unlike no other: six vinyl albums and four CDs, plus a 52-page booklet, all housed inside a lavish hard-bound box. This was such an impressive package that it was nominated for two Grammy Awards this past year: in the strangely re-named “Best Historical Album” category, and for “Best Album Notes.”

I had heard Syl Johnson before — most notably his 1969 smash “Is It Because I’m Black” and a few songs on some Hi Records compilations — but other than those few tunes, I was woefully ignorant about his other recordings. I wasn’t keen to splurge on the mammoth boxed set, mainly because I have absolutely no use for vinyl records at this point in my life, so I settled for The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records, a two-CD compilation.

 

There are times, listening to this set, that you could swear you were hearing Al Green, or his long-lost soul twin. But that’s not such a far-fetched illusion: Willie Mitchell produced both singers for the famous Hi Records label and his trademark “sound” infects those recordings. But such a musical infection is a glorious thing in this case, and when you are finished listening to the music on these discs, you are left to wonder why Syl Johnson was never a bigger success. Of course, the Al Green comparisons are inevitable, but it would be unfair to call Syl Johnson a “poor man’s Al Green” or some sort of second-rate soul singer. He’s definitely got his own style and when he is able to slip out of the Willie Mitchell production shadows, his vocals take on a grittier, bluesier edge, but without losing their soulful luster.

 

The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records, as its title indicates, covers Syl Johnson’s entire tenure at the label; four albums and 45 tracks. Not surprisingly, since it isn’t just a “Best of” collection, it does contain a bit of fluff; some songs are slathered with too much disco-era gloss, the cover of “Stand By Me” doesn’t yield anything special, and hearing yet another medley of Otis Redding hits was not such a hot idea either. While it may require a bit of wading through the musical mud to get to the goodies, it’s worth the effort. For the most part this collection serves as a fine introduction to a woefully neglected singer.

Syl Johnson’s music has also been very influential among the Hip-Hop community in recent years. “Is It Because I’m Black” may have been his biggest chart hit, but several other of his compositions, most especially his 1967 song “Different Strokes,” have been sampled numerous times by artists such as Jay Z and Kanye West, Run DMC, and Wu-Tang Clan. In some cases, Syl Johnson had to sue certain artists in order to get paid for those samples. Those early songs, however, are not to be found on the Hi Records compilation. For those goodies, you’ll have to either get another compilation, Twilight and Twinight, or splurge for the boxed set.

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