An underrated example of orchestrated soul
Daryl Easlea 2009-09-29
It was only a matter of time before Teddy Pendergrass would leave Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the group he’d made his name in. As their lead singer, he had delighted with his gospel-influenced vocals on hits such as If You Don’t Know Me By Now and the uplifting Wake Up Everybody. In 1977, he finally went solo.
Working with the cream of Philadelphia International Records' (PIR) production team, Pendergrass built on the template that Marvin Gaye established on Let's Get It On and I Want You, bypassed the cerebral and aimed straight for the bedroom.
Although he cut up-tempo sides, Pendergrass became synonymous with ballads. Written for him by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (and later, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead), these songs portrayed him as a tender lover; sometimes bullish and occasionally foolish, but mostly there to take care of you.
His self-titled debut album captures some of his greatest performances. Backed by PIR’s house band, MFSB, it is an underrated example of orchestrated soul. I Don’t Love You Anymore is a huge, upbeat anthem about, well, divorce. Pendergrass will sort out the financial side of things, and then scarper: “But we can’t live together, this way will be much better”. The More I Get, The More I Want is a frantic floor-filler, and its breakdown, focusing on the bass, is one of the most inspirational in 70s soul.
When it mellows out, it does so with great élan. The album’s best-known track, The Whole Town's Laughing at Me, is about a man reflecting on the error of his ways. If And If I Had is a little too lush, Easy, Easy, Got to Take It Easy is wonderful – we hear Pendergrass grunt and groan over a woozy, layered groove.
Teddy Pendergrass was never going to be everyone’s cup of tea. As a largely non-writing performer he lacked the vision of his peers – Isaac Hayes, Barry White and Marvin Gaye. However, as a vocalist, he often equalled and sometimes bettered his rivals. Before his work became a little too clichéd, Teddy Pendergrass captures him at his peak.