Teddy Pendergrass Or Rhythm and Blues Can Save The World
You can’t hide from yourself, because everywhere you go, there you are…
Maybe it’s because Barack Obama isn’t the President anymore, but it damned sure seems like everyone is forgetting the great alpha male black men can do amazing things and actually solve the world’s problems. We’re having a moment for astounding black women right now, and there’s also a space for beta male black boys-to-men as well. But, it’s in contemplating the lessons learned from the life, talent, and execution of said talent of one of the greatest alpha male black men ever, that we learn that Teddy Pendergrass and rhythm and blues can save the world.
It’s completely understandable if folks who write recently published articles like “Black Women Are Responsible for Everything Cool” and “Black Musicians on Being Boxed in by R&B and Rap Expectations” are unaware of the fact that Teddy P could actually be responsible for every truly cool modern thing and super-thrived in the box marked “R & B expectations.”
In the era between 1977–1991, Teddy Pendergrass released 12 top ten R & B albums and a matching number of top 10 singles. Add this to the four top ten R & B albums and 13 top 10 singles that Pendergrass had as the lead singer of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, and that equals 16 albums and 25 hit songs that redefined the expectations of excellence which black people and rhythm and blues could aspire to reach.
What’s problematic here though is that concurrent to Teddy Pendergrass’ era of supreme black musical excellence, there was a crossover era of black music into the white/mainstream musical pool that was in-arguably even more excellent. For as great as Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” were, by 1982 Michael Jackson’s “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean” exploded around the world and dwarfed Pendergrass’ standard. As well, for as incredible as Pendergrass’ 1978 and 1979 solo back-to-back hits “Close The Door” and “Turn Off The Lights” were, Whitney Houston’s 1986 and 1987 smashes “Greatest Love Of All” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” were supernova hits that cemented black rhythm and blues as well, mainstream pop for the masses, for the next 30 years.
It’s important to note here that Teddy Pendergrass was paralyzed from the chest down after a tragic automobile accident in 1982 and died in 2010, which, on many levels, is tragic for his aforementioned amazing legacy in the modern era. There’s a certain for us, by us nature that Pendergrass best represented as inarguably the last truly great black music for black people superstar of rhythm and blues music that, in the sound’s 80s crossover and eventual cross-pollination into so many other genres, makes things hard insofar as reclaiming straight up and down R & B — and as a result the essence of the great alpha males who made the sound — and its most powerful impact.
In Briana Younger’s stunning Pitchfork piece entitled Black Musicians on Being Boxed in by R&B and Rap Expectations: “We Fit in So Many Things,” Moses Sumney, a rising black vocalist of new outstanding “outré folk” album Aromanticism fame notes, “When we put black artists in these boxes, we strip their ability to morph — which is something white artists don’t have to deal with. Black artists who are actively dismantling genres are still given these R&B titles, where white artists who are also dismantling genres are given credit.”
To Sumney’s point, I would like to argue that, to tie back to the mention of Barack Obama which opened this piece, that the moment when Obama ran for President of the United States in 2008 and 96% of eligible black voters who voted, voted for him, is the moment when black people put themselves back in a box. Related, all morphing out of said box was thus stripped away from ourselves the moment wherein Donald Trump, running on a platform largely buoyed by racism-baiting rhetoric, became the 45th President of the United States, following 95% of eligible black voters voting for Obama in 2012. In the wake of such data, there’s something almost heart-breakingly sad about Younger’s article, and something doubly important as well about looking back at an artist like Teddy Pendergrass.
“You can’t hide from yourself / Everywhere you go there you are” starts Teddy Pendergrass’ 1977 disco thumper “You Can’t Hide From Yourself.” There’s something about this particular song that, 40 years later, resonates in a uniquely profound manner. Black America’s back in a box, and musically, there’s a style of black music that’s being advocated for that’s very good about hiding in corners, playing with echoes, and most specifically, as FKA Twigs noted in The Guardian in 2014, oftentimes being described as “[I’ve] heard [nothing] like this before, it’s not in a genre.” Ultimately, there’s a lot of black hiding from a lot of black selves happening at present, and one would imagine that, very soon, whether these artists want to or not, a lot of black bodies who want to be free, floating, and left alone, are going to be rather rhythmically bumping into each other and singing the blues about their woeful state.
If we’re casting an eye backwards, there’s a certain alpha male rhythm and blues standard that exists that is truly important, but may currently be so waylaid by angst or seeming irrelevance as to not be respected. The “Alpha male” side of R & B is a space dominated in 2017 by The Weeknd having seemingly meaningless sex with women while high on cocaine, Bryson Tiller having “Wild Thoughts” about cremating vaginas, Trey Songz famously “inventing” sex, and if you’re R. Kelly, allegedly running a real life sex cult populated with underage girls. Thus, it’s understandable that R & B is in a place where Moses Sumney just wanting to “make out in [his] car” is appreciated. However, there’s a happy balance that an artist like Teddy Pendergrass reached that’s important to this conversation.
Teddy Pendergrass sang songs that aggressively approached, but never quite crossed the line into deplorable heterosexual seduction. Unlike James Brown outwardly calling himself a “Sex Machine” or the very milquetoast “courtship” songs that outline much of the traditions of Sam Cooke or Motown Records, Teddy P was something entirely different. Pendergrass was oftentimes backed by the players at Philadelphia International Records, a crew that according to Wikipedia, made music “characterized by funk influences and lush instrumental arrangements, often featuring sweeping strings and piercing horns.” Moreover, the genre is described as laying disco’s groundwork via “fusing the R&B rhythm sections of the 1960s with the pop vocal tradition, and featuring a slightly more pronounced jazz influence in its melodic structures and arrangements.” In final, Fred Wesley, the trombonist of the James Brown band and Parliament-Funkadelic, notes that the “signature deep but orchestrated sound” should be best regarded for “putting the bow tie on funk.”
Yes, in an era where New York Magazine’s The Cut can note that “Black Women Are Responsible for Everything Cool,” (and there’s ample reason provided by Nielsen in that article for the statement to be true) the space for Teddy Pendergrass’ infamously aggressive demand that a woman “turn off the lights” before a romantic interlude may seem anachronistic. However, if we break this down deeper, there’s a sophisticated level of agency afforded the woman in this song that’s just not happening with the likes of Bryson Tiller, Anderson .Paak, The Weeknd, or any other alpha males making waves making rhythm and blues in the current era. There’s something about the totality of the song’s presentation — the lushness of the strings combined with Pendergrass’ history as a minister, plus the fact that he’s offering, via lyrics, explicit lyrical foreplay — that’s important. The demand to “turn off the lights” is not going to be followed by a fist, more than likely, it’s a “hurry up, I’m ready to deliver pleasure.” Yes, that’s incredibly egotistical and self-aggrandizing, but given that Pendergrass held “women’s only” concerts in 1978, where there’s seductive smoke there may have been sexual fire.
However, this isn’t just a conversation about love talk and slow jams. We’re in a place as a society where the idea of discussing politics and making immediate headway towards social unity isn’t likely to happen. However, there’s something in the power of great R & B songs that’s completely undeniable. There are those who believe that we’re in need of an alpha male singer-as-leader like Marvin Gaye to make What’s Going On 2.0, the type of album that appeals to a higher social calling. What that argument does not include is the fact that an average of 95.5 percent of black people voting for a black American president who gave gay people the right to get married and socialized American health care (among many things) may have finally answered Gaye’s call. Thus, we may be in a place where asking for another What’s Going On, while likely necessary for all of us to remain at “stay woke” status, isn’t necessarily going to immediately change the course of our current shared lived history.
We’re at the place now where we need a great love song to start the healing process between us all. Probably moreso than than Frank Ocean, Mr. Sumney, Trey Songz, or well, anyone in the known canon of great rhythm and blues-affiliated performers, there’s a true need for an alpha male black man to reclaim a standard set out of cultural necessity by other great alpha male black men, a standard that was improved upon to likely its greatest level by Teddy Pendergrass.
For as much as Pendergrass is lampooned (iconically as Black comedic tradition) for his aggressive paeans, he’s again, also a preacher, which means that he’s also uniquely talented as a great unifier of people. Impressively, as related to this era, Pendergrass is an important member of the gay disco tradition as songs like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (as covered by Thelma Houston) were underground gay disco classics in much the same way as his earlier alluded solo song “You Can’t Hide From Yourself.” As well, note that just prior to his 1982 accident, Pendergrass was quite close to breakthrough success. He was, at this point, nicknamed “the black Elvis,” as a hit-maker, surpassed Marvin Gaye and Barry White, and was managed by the same Shep Gordon who made mega-successes out of the likes of Blondie, Kenny Loggins, Willie Nelson, and Alice Cooper.
There’s something to be said about the fact that in the wake of Teddy Pendergrass’ sudden and untimely demise that it was Michael Jackson, an arguably timid and beta male to the point of being considered wondrously childlike even to his death as a 50 year old man, that took hold of the rhythm and blues torch. There’s an even bigger argument to be made that Pendergrass’ modern majesty isn’t even present in rhythm and blues, but rather in rap, wherein artists like Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, 50 Cent, and at present Drake, all sample and borrow to the point of stealing from the Pendergrass playbook. As for rhythm and blues, it’s either more aggressive than Teddy P’s “Close The Door” and “Turn Off The Lights” or somewhere in the wheelhouse of being as brilliantly beta as the “King of Pop” to annoyingly near-benign in impact as any of the singer/songwriter/production types honing their chops on Soundcloud.
Rhythm and blues was a sound made by black people, as salve for black people’s souls first, and the world amelioration second. The idea that black artists are wanting to “hide from themselves” makes sense in the wake of living in a universe wherein the ultra-mainstreaming of black-invented culture afforded such expansion. However, we’re in a vastly different era now, and the need for black artists to rediscover R & B — and at it’s finest in the form of the collected works of Teddy Pendergrass — is absolutely necessary. Again, rhythm and blues was invented by black people as salve for black people’s souls first, and world amelioration second. Is there not a better time or a better place for us all to “Close The Door” “to my place” or less romantically even “Wake Up Everybody” to the idea that we “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon?” I’m all for striking a very out-of-sorts universe with a “Love TKO” myself…