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Posts tagged ‘Percy Sledge’

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!

Dan Penn

Do any of these songs sound familiar?

 

“Cry Like a Baby”

“Sweet Inspiration”

You Left the Water Running”

“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”

“The Dark End of the Street.”

“Out of Left Field”

“I’m Your Puppet”

“A Woman Left Lonely”

“It Tears Me Up”

“I Met Her in Church”

“Feed the Flame”

“Good Things Don’t Come Easy”

 

Sure, you know these songs. At least you do if you’re over the age of forty and weren’t raised in an Amish commune. Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, once you listen to the song, you’ll have one of those “Oh, yeah!” moments.

 

These are songs so delicious that they melt in your ears, and all of them were written by the legendary Dan Penn. Once again, you may be stumped by the name, but that’s not surprising. Dan Penn is not a name that is well known to most people, even most die-hard music fans, but the songs that he wrote, and those he penned in collaboration with musician pal Spooner Oldham, rank as some of the finest of the rock and soul era. From Muscle Shoals to Memphis, Dan Penn is songwriting royalty.

Both Penn and Oldham are accomplished musicians, but many of their songs were hits by other artists. The Box Tops scored with “Cry Like a Baby,” The Sweet Inspirations had success with “Sweet Inspiration,” Otis Redding recorded “You Left the Water Running”, Aretha Franklin claimed “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, and James Carr’s signature song was with “The Dark End of the Street.”

 

Penn and Oldham are fine proponents of southern soul, but their songs are so well crafted that they can be covered by country, pop, or rock acts, and always sound like they were written especially for that artist. Many diverse examples of the duo’s songwriting craft can be found on the 24-track compilation Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, released by Ace Records in the UK this past year. This compilation focuses on the duo’s late 1960s output, with artists such as Percy Sledge, Dionne Warwicke, Charlie Rich, Etta James, Solomon Burke, the Box Tops, Tony Joe White, Ronnie Milsap, Patti LaBelle, Irma Thomas, Tommy Roe, and Joe Simon performing a sumptuous bunch of songs. Needless to say, there’s not a dud in the bunch.

For a taste of Penn and Oldham performing their own material, pick up Moments From This Theater, a fabulous recording of small-venue shows that they did in the UK back in the late 1990s. Many of their best-loved hits are included on this single disc, along with little known gems such as “Memphis Women and Chicken.” Penn and Oldham have the crowd enthralled with their heartfelt performance, using only piano and guitar. This is a true musical love-fest.

Dan Penn has recorded only a handful of solo albums but they are all excellent, including 1994’s comeback (his first album in over 20 years) Do Right Man. We already knew he was a great songwriter, but Penn shows off his prowess as a very soulful singer in his own right, performing ace versions of “The Dark End of the Street,” “I’m Your Puppet” and many others. This was an excellent, woefully neglected album that is sadly out of print. If you can find a copy, grab it!

 

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