Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me Review
While Bohemian Rhapsody celebrates the moment Queen appeared to steal the show at Live Aid in London, over in Philadelphia there was another epic performance taking place that stole the hearts of the 100,000 attendees. 3 years after Teddy Pendergrass’ career was tragically cut down in its prime by a car accident, the now quadriplegic soul legend returned to the stage for the first time. Director Olivia Lichtenstein’s documentary tells the story of one of soul’s rawest and sexiest voices, which culminates with Pendergrass bravely returning to face the world at Live Aid as he embarked on an unlikely comeback.
Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me uses the title of one of his most famous songs to headline a story about a man who made it from the hard-knock streets of 1960s South Philly, to the brink of global superstardom. In an era which Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Al Green, Michael Jackson and Curtis Mayfield are all remembered for a stream of unforgettable classics, Teddy Pendergrass’ contribution has been somewhat overlooked. The accident was largely responsible for that, but one look back at the music he delivered throughout the 70s reminds us his legend is deserving of much more.
In the 80s Pendergrass sat down to record his life story on a series of cassette tapes. The sound quality has deteriorated since, but Lichtenstein intermittently returns to these throughout to allow Pendergrass to speak for himself. The director also speaks to his 100-year-old mother, Ida, who looks back on her son as both child and man. She was left to raise him alone in a tough, gang riddled environment after his father walked out before he was born. We hear Pendergrass speak about the choices available for young black men in his neighbourhood at the time, saying: “They felt they could fare better in the Vietnam War, rather than stay on the streets.”
His voice stood out from an early age, and inspired by Jackie Wilson's magnetic performances, he quickly gained a local reputation. Pendergrass earned a spot as drummer for the Blue Notes, before Harold Melvin turned him into their lead singer. Songs like "If You Don’t Know Me by Now", "The Love I Lost", "Wake Up Everybody" and "Don’t Leave Me This Way" saw them rise to prominence. After their first single, “I Miss You” they became known as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Given the prominence of his name, most people assumed it was Melvin rather than Pendergrass on lead vocals. Needless to say, this meant he also took most of the money, a situation that reached breaking point in the mid-70s, when Pendergrass decided to go solo.
The transition from group member to solo sex symbol was seamless as he racked up five platinum albums in a row. Once Shep “Supermensch” Gordon became his manager, he swiftly came off the notorious Chitlin' Circuit to cultivate his female audience. His women-only shows created pandemonium as they threw everything but themselves at the stage, his sexually charged performances bolstered by classics like “Turn off the Lights” and “Come Go with Me”. At the start of the 80s a cover of Lionel Richie’s “Lady” looked set to send him global. But it never saw the light of day. One late night, aged 31, his Rolls Royce went off the road straight into a bank of trees, paralysing him from the chest down, and stopping his career dead in its tracks.
Lichtenstein’s film is formal in terms of structure, charting Pendergrass' life and career in chronological order. What makes it feel comprehensive is her willingness to go into the darker periods of his life and personality. The biggest of those is the killing of his lover and first manager, Taaz Lang. He was tied into a less than favourable contract that was resolved with her death. Fingers are pointed towards the ‘Black Mafia’ of the time who were heavily involved in the music industry, but insinuations are made that Pendergrass may of known more than he was letting on. He was also a heavy womaniser, with his three children born of different mothers. They all make brief appearances, and speak lovingly and fondly about their father. There are also suggestions that several attempts were made on his life, and the accident he suffered was far from a freak occurrence.
The documentary also shines a little light on Philadelphia International Records, where songwriter-producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (along with Bunny Sigler) created the famous Philly soul sound. It’s a label often overshadowed by the success of Motown and emergence of disco, but aside from Pendergrass it’s where The Delfonics, Patti LaBelle, Lou Rawls, The O'Jays, The Stylistics, McFadden & Whitehead and countless others made their name. The duo were the creative team behind Pendergrass’ success, and although the label effectively dropped him after the accident, they talk extensively about their time spent working together.
We also get to see Pendergrass’ Teddy Bear Orchestra reunited after 34 years, with some members of the group calling back to their time spent together. Ex-wives, girlfriends, Questlove (naturally) and Shep Gordon make an appearance, alongside extensive footage of Pendergrass performing live at the peak of his powers. Psychiatrist Dan Gottlieb also speaks in-depth about how he helped pull Pendergrass back from the brink of suicide in the months following his accident. He proved to be a fighter, despite the odds being stacked against him as a kid, and Lichtenstein’s inspirational film shows it's a quality that stayed with him right to the very end.
Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me opens in select cinemas on February 22nd.
There will also be a screening and Q&A with director Olivia Lichtenstein on the 21st at the Bertha DocHouse. The film will then release on DVD on March 29th, before playing on the BBC at some point later in the year.