Story and Photo by Andy ArgyrakisWhen Teddy Pendergrass announced his return to touring after nearly twenty years, it was a "comeback" in the truest sense of the word. For an R&B crooner who fronted Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, helped define the Philadelphia sound, and ruled the airwaves throughout the soulful '70s right alongside Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Barry White, Pendergrass' area appearance was more than just a nostalgic look at a by-gone era. It was a celebration of the sounds that paved the way for the modern day soul scene, and most importantly, a celebration of life.
Unlike most performers from generations past who refuse to tour because their heads have gotten too big or they're too messed up on drugs unable to pick up the pieces of their past, the circumstances behind Pendergrass' absence ranged far from his control. On a life-changing day in 1982, Pendergrass was involved in a traumatizing car accident that not only left him out of commission for six months, but also resulted in lifelong paralysis from the waste down. "Times have gotten better but some days are still hard," admitted Pendergrass about his long road to recovery to the near capacity Chicago Theatre crowd. "But it's because of you and because of the music that I'm able to go on. I'm truly blessed!"
It was one of the rare times at a concert when the onstage banter didn't seem canned and Pendergrass was sincerely choked up following the audiences' standing ovation. And they had every reason to give him one after those courageous statements, along with the two hours of soul stirring hits from the past. For a man confined to a wheel chair, Pendergrass had more personality and stage presence than many performers free from disability. With a headset microphone fastened around cranium, he maneuvered his chair back and fourth along the stage, with three dancers, four background singers, and a sultry saxophone player almost always in tow. His band of veteran players helped further replicate the authenticity of a smoky Philadelphia nightclub circa 1976, and admittedly, few flashbacks have ever felt so good.
Combined with flash of Pendergrass' backing troupe and the funk of the band, the night kicked off with the mega smash "Joy," a summarization of what it clearly felt like for the previously struck down star to have his career revitalized. It was followed by the steamy groove of "When Somebody Loves You Back," a scintillating love tale that could bring out the romantic animal in even the shiest of cats. The equally sensuous "Love TKO," "Turn Off the Lights," and "Close the Door" only rekindled that amorous fire, providing a common ground for all the couples in the crowd to woe with affection towards one another. Pendergrass' didn't just sing of earthly love though, also turning his adulation towards the heavens above during "Truly Blessed." The drawn out gospel jaunt included a backing choir that appeared from backstage who took the crowd up to the mountaintop for several minutes of spiritual scatting, returning to earthly realms after their holy ghost high.
Pendergrass left the stage upon its conclusion for a much-deserved break allowing his backup singers and dancers to take center stage. Although they had been appropriately utilized while supporting Pendergrass, they couldn't exactly fill the room with an alluring presence of their own. It didn't help that they occupied his absence with an odd choice of oldies from other artists jammed into an incongruous medley. For instance, one female backer excessively diva-sized Thelma Houston's disco darling "Don't Leave Me This Way," while a male dancer turned in an over defined dance sequence during the band's instrumental rendering of the "Soul Train" theme. Luckily, Teddy rejoined them after only a few minutes of the disjointed randomness, dipping way back to his Blue Notes fronting days. Unfortunately though classics like "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "Wake Up Everybody" and "The Love I Lost" were also unjustly reduced to snippet medley form.
Thankfully, Pendergrass rebounded for an almost exhausting encore making sure his finale two tracks (the subdued dusty "Only You" and the quintessential funk jam "Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose") received the proper time frame they deserved. Based on the overwhelming response Pendergrass received during those renderings, the Chicago audience would gladly welcome him back with open arms whenever he chooses to return, though the exhausting demands of touring and the strenuous schedule it sometimes implores may make it hard to do so in the near future. If that's the case, at least there's the recently released DVD/CD From Teddy With Love, filmed on the current tour in Los Angeles that features all the highlights minus the few moments of filler.
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