In his heyday, Teddy Pendergrass was sonic sex incarnate. Even Judge Bill Gibron felt a slight "twinge" when taking in this late '70s performance by the soulful singer.
You got…you got…you got…what I want!
Though he really wasn't the group's first choice for a singer, Teddy Pendergrass had a voice that was sweet and silky, and titular head Harold Melvin recognized that. Needing a new lead for his famous Blue Notes, Melvin called Teddy's semi-novice name. After years of singing in church choirs and youth groups, Pendergrass was finally in the limelight. Two albums and a string of hit singles later, he was the toast of the R&B world and that made the group's leader very unhappy. Even with chart toppers like "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and "Wake Up Everybody," friction between the two led to name changes and, finally, an acrimonious split. Pendergrass briefly revived the Blue Notes name, but ditched it for a solo career. Like the successful skyrocket he always thought he would be, Pendergrass played to his audience. His new sound was funky and sexy, and he parlayed that particular style into a fierce female demographic. Pendergrass even offered "ladies only" concerts, overheated performances filled with passion and seduction.
The rest of the '70s were sensational for Pendergrass. He scored several hits, went platinum with his albums, and became an icon for a certain type of sensitive, sexy singers. If it weren't for a 1982 car accident that left the successful, smooth operator paralyzed from the waist down, this African-American Adonis would today be an icon on par with Prince, Marvin Gaye, or even a certain Michael J. However, the long road to recovery, and limited ability to perform, kept Pendergrass in the background. Now in his mid fifties, he's a memory to more than a few middle-aged music lovers. As a significant sonic force in soul music, he deserves the spotlight once more, if only to prove what a potent force he once was. Although it represents the assent of his eventual superstardom, Teddy! Live in '79 is a sensational showcase for the man and his massive, magical talent.
Granted, this is a semi-schlocky Vegas show, coming from a dinner-theater style room in The Sahara Hotel at Lake Tahoe, and some of the songs that made him famous ("Love TKO," "Turn Off the Lights") were still a part of his future. Yet during this hour-long excursion into amorous audience participation, Pendergrass is a wonderful presence; decked out in a Saturday Night Fever suit and bedazzled in gold, the singer struts his stuff for the overwhelmingly enthusiastic crowd. His set list includes a minor nod to his past and he even covers an Eric Carmen classic, putting his own unique stamp on the song. The material included on this DVD is as follows:
• "Life is a Song Worth Singing"—from the 1978
album, Life is a Song Worth Singing
It's tragic how R&B seems to completely embrace a certain style of singer, only to quickly forget how forceful they are when another musical makeover occurs. It's hard to imagine Pendergrass in today's hip-hop and rap reality, a cultural tide that has drowned many a previous soul star. Even without his disability, Pendergrass would find a modern audience less than tolerant of his bump-and-grind groove. Yet this is exactly what makes Teddy! Live in '79 so exciting. Watching incredibly old-school showmanship backed by a wonderfully potent urban "orchestra" creates enchantment rarely seen in our Empty-V environ. Pendergrass definitely plays to the audience, inviting starstruck gals to join him in song during "When Somebody Loves You Back" and doffing his shirt midway through, the better to gyrate his hips and pump his pecs and pythons. It is hard not to admire the man; he has the look and he knows it. It's a natural magnetism, nothing forced or phony. Thankfully, he uses it in service of some sensational songs, as his association with Philly Soul legends Gamble and Huff produced many a joyful noise.
Certainly, the kitsch factor is fairly high. Teddy takes to pounding on the percussion during the occasionally overlong funk jams, and he would make Christopher Walken happy with his extended cowbell workout during the opening number "Life is a Song Worth Singing." Also, this is late '70s stereophonics here, meaning that as large as his backing band is, it can still sound flat and thin. Pendergrass is a trouper all the way through, enticing the crowd to sing along and shaking his moneymaker in obvious delight. To realize that, three short years later he'd be unable to do most, if not all, of those things gives this concert a kind of urgency that wouldn't have otherwise existed. Viewed as pure entertainment only, this concert delivers. It may not have all the hits and suffers from a dated dynamic when it comes to music making, but this is still some damn fine fun. Teddy! Live in '79 argues for Pendergrass's place in the pantheon of great black artists. He is truly one of the genre's most gifted performers.
Shout! Factory deserves props for finding this arcane artifact from the dying days of disco. Presented in an ancient analog 1.33:1 full-frame image, we get lots of flaring, bleeding, ghosting and light trails as part of the visual experience. When the camera stays centered on Teddy, everything is okay, but the minute it moves, those videotape demons make themselves known. Also borderline embarrassing is the limp Dolby Digital Stereo mix. Shout! has often remastered concert offerings to obtain the best possible sound, but the presentation here is barely passable. The subwoofer is silent most of the time and the live-audience accolades sounds sterile and counterfeit a great deal of the time. Since we expect more from a DVD's digital showcase, the aural elements here are incredibly below average.
On the upside, we are witness to a 2002 interview conducted by a local Philadelphia journalist for a local program. You got to give the man credit…wheelchair or not, Pendergrass looks sensational. Aside from a little extra weight, he closely resembles the young man of '79. He discusses his entire career, from his days with the Blue Notes to coming out on his own. Open, honest, and very forthcoming, Teddy takes it all in stride and never once lets tragedy or the changing times spoil his merry mood. At nearly 30 minutes, this is a great bit of added content and almost makes up for the subpar tech specs.
Teddy! Live in '79 may not be the perfect showcase for this emblematic performer, but you will get a healthy dose of what made him a sensation all throughout the latter part of the Me Decade. Though the '80s would begin with a bang, they would end in disappointment and struggle. Fate may have tried to trick Teddy Pendergrass, but the resilient artist continues to carry on. In his prime, he was near perfect. It's about time pop culture tried to reconnect with his creative canon. It, like the man who voiced it, is engaging, entertaining, and inspirational.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• 2002 Interview with Teddy Pendergrass
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