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

Posts tagged ‘Marvin Gaye’

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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Censorship and the Brunei Girl

I neglected to ask her for her name, but she’s my hero of the day. Her actions may seem relatively insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but to me she symbolizes the fight against injustice and idiotic government policies.  This young woman was in my bookshop this morning, browsing the shelves and starting to accumulate a rather sizeable stack of books. “I’m not finished yet,” she remarked at one point, adding another book to the stack. “In my country, some of these books are banned. But I don’t care. I really want to read them, so I’m going to take them back with me.”

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Good for you, I said. It was at that point when I asked her where she was from and she told me Brunei. I just hope some zealot of a customs inspector back in Brunei doesn’t decide to inspect the contents of her bags and then freak out over the sight of a Salman Rushdie novel. Oh, the horror!

But this woman wasn’t the first customer in my shop to lament the existence of government censorship in their native country, or just the fact that there aren’t any good bookshops where they live. And I’m not talking about some remote island kingdom, but major Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. These people appear to truly appreciate shopping in a well-stocked bookshop where they can buy whatever they desire, and that makes me feel like I’m making some sort of contribution to free choice and the passing on of knowledge, however small that role may be.

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On the subject of unjust labor practices, in the news this week I’ve been reading about the protests of Cambodian garment workers who want slightly higher salaries. That might not seem to be related to the denial of free speech or censorship, but it’s still a human rights issue and I applaud these workers for taking a stand and demanding that they be paid a living wage. Cambodia is still a horribly poor country and people like these garment workers continue to be taken advantage of. Another story in the news this week highlighted the concerns of Singapore citizens over proposed new government restrictions on Internet sites. And then there is the extremely disturbing revelation in the USA that government agencies there are tapping phones and eavesdropping on e-mail accounts of journalists and private citizens. How can they really call themselves “The Land of the Free” with a straight face at this point? Here in Thailand, despite our draconian lese majeste law, along with other legal fuzz balls, I still consider it to be a much freer, and much safer, place to live than the United States.

Seeing this woman from Brunei thumbing her nose at her country’s censorship practices was inspiring to see. I hope more people around the world take similar stances, refusing to buckle under whatever idiotic laws and restrictions that their governments try to impose on them. Demand government accountability, responsibility, and fairness. Demand the same of banks, police departments, and big businesses. Don’t let these fuckers continue to screw us over. Really, I get so fed up with the injustices and unfairness in the world nowadays that I just want to scream. Marvin Gaye was right when he said “It makes me wanna holler.” And Public Enemy was justified when they urged us to “Fight the power!” It hasn’t changed. We need to continue fighting the powers that be.

I think back to Tiananmen Square in Beijing 25 years ago and that lone man standing in front of the tank. That epitomized defiance in the face of hopelessness. Damn, that took some balls! We can’t all make such bold statements, but neither can we allow our governments to get away with the shit that they continue to do. Maybe it’s something as subtle as sticking a few banned books in your luggage, or bolder acts such as taking to the streets and verbally protesting. But we need to do it. If want true freedom, we have to do it.

 

Music for the Road

About two years I succumbed to the lure of taking along a portable music player in the form of an MP3 device when I went on trips outside the country. No, not an iPod, or any other sort of multi-tasking iThing, but simply a small device that played only music. Seeing as how I’m constantly listening to music when I’m at home or at work, I felt like I needed some tunes with me when I was on the road too.

 

I still bring paperback books along to read (no tablets or other “handy” reading devices, just real paper products, thank you) when I travel, but the music makes for a pleasing accompaniment, particularly when waiting around in airports, taking long walks or bike rides, or just relaxing in my hotel room (I can only stomach so much cable TV news, and have zero interest in watching vapid movies).

 

Music has become an inspirational soundtrack to my trips. When I think about cycling down a lonely dirt road in Shan State, hoping that I wouldn’t round a bend and run into a herd of cattle, I recall that I was listening to some vintage Springsteen tunes. When I was navigating the chaotic streets of Mandalay, Steely Dan kept a smile on my face. For my latest trip to Myanmar I stuck with some travel-tested favorites rather than put anything brand new on my MP3 player. I’ve found that trips aren’t a good time for “test driving” new music, but for enjoying the old familiar. I also included some music from Myanmar favorites such as Lay Phyu, Linn Linn, and Iron Cross, local tunes to make the atmosphere all the more authentic. Here are some of the albums that kept me moving and grooving on the road.

 

Rosanne Cash – Rules of Travel

Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy

Bruce Springsteen – Tracks (4 CD set)

Nada Surf – If I Had a Hi-Fi

Gil Scott-Heron – Evolution (and Flashback): The Very Best of

 

Curtis Mayfield – There’s No Place Like America Today

Joan Armatrading – This Charming Life

Gordon Lightfoot – Gord’s Gold

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Second Helping

Patti Griffin – Flaming Red

 

James Taylor – Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon

Al Green – Deep Shade of Green (3 CD set)

Atlanta Rhythm Section – Dog Days/Red Tape

Glen Campbell – Meet Glen Campbell

Love Tractor – Sky at Night

 

Poco – Head Over Heels

Carole King – Her Greatest Hits

Grant Green – Live at the Lighthouse

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

Bruce Hornsby – Greatest Radio Hits

 

Marvin Gaye – Trouble Man

Gabor Szabo – The Sorcerer

Doobie Brothers – What Were Once Vices are Now Habits

Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

Tabu Ley Rochereau – African Classics

 

Drive-By Truckers – The Fine Print

Betty Wright & The Roots – Betty Wright: The Movie

UB 40 – Signing Off

Booker T. Jones – The Road from Memphis

Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps

 

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