Teddy Pendergrass: Rediscovering His Soul

July 2, 2019
Documentary Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me shines a light on one of the least remembered hit makers of the 20th century aka Black Elvis.

To fans of soul music – and in particular the sweeping strings and stirring vocals of a sub-genre known as ‘Philly Soul’ – Philadelphian Teddy Pendergrass is known as a vocal giant. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Pendergrass never really became a household name outside of America. In fact, mention him to someone who might be more familiar with, say, Billy Paul or Patti LaBelle and you normally get that squinted, half-knowing-but-brain-finding-it-hard-to-locate-an-image-from-its-memory-banks look, followed by the question: What did he sing again?

And therein lies the rub, because Pendergrass sang more well-known songs than you might readily remember, and certainly more than he was properly credited for. Filmmaker Olivia Lichtenstein was driven by a “powerful compulsion” to change all that and the result is her latest documentary, Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me.

So back to that earlier question, What did he sing again? Well, of course, there’s his 1972 signature tune hinted at in the film’s title, If You Don’t Know Me By Now (later topping the charts a second time when Simply Red covered it in 1989). Alongside it were hits like Wake Up Everybody (sampled and covered by countless people over the years) and the future-disco smash Don’t Leave Me This Way. The three aforementioned songs are often wrongly attributed to singer Harold Melvin of the Blue Notes, a group Pendergrass was also in.

Then there are million sellers like Close The Door, or tunes like Love TKO, Only You and Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose from his early solo career in the ‘70s. Rivalling contemporaries like Marvin Gaye, Barry White and Stevie Wonder for top spot on the r’n’b charts, Pendergrass became known as the “Black Elvis” and as a sideline he could have opened a lingerie shop with the amount of undergarments thrown at him during his packed “women-only” concerts.

By 1984, Pendergrass was dueting with Whitney Houston on her hugely successful debut album, for the ballad Hold Me, but not before tragedy struck leaving him motionless from the chest down.

Despite its otherwise celebratory nature and eye-opening insights into the Mafia-like powers that controlled Philadelphia, it’s that very tragedy, at the wheel of his Rolls Royce, that dramatically opens Olivia Lichtenstein’s film.

“I grew up listening to soul music,” the director tells FilmInk. “My friends and I would spend our breaks choreographing dances in the school hall to the sounds of Otis Reading, Wilson Pickett and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.”

Fast forward several decades and the BAFTA-winning director was enjoying some old Pendergrass records afresh, which got her wondering what had become of him.

“I found out, by chance, while watching Supermensch, the documentary about über talent manager, Shep Gordon, who, it transpired, had managed Teddy. The couple of minutes devoted to Shep’s relationship with Teddy in that film were enough to convince me that I had to make a film about him. It wasn’t so much a choice but a powerful compulsion – a feeling I’ve had only a few times in a long documentary-making career. I contacted Shep and said I felt that Teddy didn’t have the recognition his talent deserved and that his was a story that needed to be told. He agreed to introduce me to the Pendergrass family and to come onboard as an executive producer.”

While music documentaries and biopics often have to deal with similar story trajectories – rise to fame, downfall and either resurrection or obscurity – Lichtenstein was up for the challenge of telling this particular one in the best way possible.

“It is a much-quoted maxim that there are only seven plots, but this never stops us from wanting to find and tell stories and, indeed, to hear them, because we’re all striving to understand the human condition. The trajectory of Teddy’s life…  I felt, [had] so much more potential than a music biopic and felt more the stuff of Shakespearean drama with its themes of the fragility of life and triumph over adversity.”

Having spent the last 28 years of his life and career in a wheelchair, Pendergrass passed away in 2010 a couple months shy of his 60th birthday. Remarkably, it’s not just in song that his voice features in the film, due to the filmmaker discovering recordings that featured him giving detailed accounts of his life.

“I always wanted somehow to let Teddy tell some of his story himself. When I uncovered the tapes, some way into the filmmaking process, I realised that they would enable him to comment when necessary and help to drive the narrative. The tapes give Teddy a real presence in the film.”

It’s something of coup too that Lichtenstein managed to convince Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff – the renowned Philly songwriting/production pairing – to be interviewed for the film.

“This was not easy! Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are music royalty and busy guys. It took many months of phone calls and emails – I was determined to get them as they were so key to Teddy’s success and had written so many of those iconic songs. In the end, I remember asking Kenny Gamble’s office to tell him that he was making a grown British woman cry and please could we set a date. That seemed to do the trick and they arrived to do the interview and were charming and eloquent. We were thrilled to get that in the can.

“One of the [other] most memorable moments was when Lloyd Parks got up and sang and did all the old dance steps to The Love I Lost on camera. As we filmed it, I knew it was a magic moment and it works beautifully in the film intercut with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes performing the song on Soul Train.”

Speaking of music, thankfully the film is full of it. Most people would have heard horror stories about dealing with music publishers and what they often charge filmmakers, despite a documentary’s obvious ability to generate music sales and renew interest in back catalogues. What was Lichtenstein’s experience?

“We made an early approach to Sony and they agreed to help us get as much music as possible in the film and were very supportive of the project. Ian Flooks, one of the producers on the film, used to be the agent for bands such as The Talking Heads, The Police, The Clash, REM and U2, and has great music connections, so that really helped. That said, it was expensive and took a lot of the budget.”

Lichtenstein’s film has been bought by Showtime in the US and has been showing there successfully. “They say it’s their number one film this year,” she happily reports. Co-financed by BBC Films, it will also be screened by the broadcaster next year. In Australia it will get some cinema screenings, including the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival later this month.

Having never met Pendergrass nor witnessed him performing live, Lichtenstein says the process of making the film makes her feel like she did in fact know him.

“Teddy’s ex-wife Karen always tells me how complicated he was; how he could be kind, funny, sexy, arrogant, and how there were so many people wrapped up in the one man that was Teddy Pendergrass. I think he was remarkable: determined, courageous and gloriously talented, a man who overcame enormous tragedy to rise again as a formidable talent, whose legacy should be recognised and remembered.”

Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival between July 19 and 30 mdff.org.au. 

It will also screen in Sydney on August 9 at 6.15pm and 8.30pm.



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