Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Teddy Pendergrass [extended]

  • I Miss You [Philadelphia International, 1972] B
  • Black and Blue [Philadelphia International, 1973] B+
  • To Be True [Philadelphia International, 1975] B+
  • Wake Up Everybody [Philadelphia International, 1975] B+
  • Collector's Item [Philadelphia International, 1976] A-
  • Teddy Pendergrass [Philadelphia International, 1977] B
  • Life Is a Song Worth Singing [Philadelphia International, 1978] B+
  • Teddy [Philadelphia International, 1979] B
  • Teddy Live! Coast to Coast [Philadelphia International, 1979] C
  • TP [Philadelphia International, 1980] A-
  • Greatest Hits [Philadelphia International, 1984] A-
  • Workin' It Back [Asylum, 1986] B+
  • Greatest Hits (The Best of Teddy Pendergrass) [The Right Stuff, 1998] A-
  • Blue Notes and Ballads [Epic Associated/Legacy, 1998] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: I Miss You [Philadelphia International, 1972]
For most of the eight-and-a-half minutes of the title cut, one Blue Note attempts a calm rapprochement with his estranged wife over the telephone while the others shout, moan, and sob his unspoken feelings--summed up by the title, which must repeat a hundred times. But not even their top-forty breakthrough, "If You Don't Know Me by Now," matches up. Gamble, Huff & Co. show off their skill at instrumental deployment and Melvin provides gorgeous vocal arrangements, but too often it all adds up to noble banalities sententiously expressed. And sometimes the banalities aren't so noble. B

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: Black and Blue [Philadelphia International, 1973]
The lead singer's name is Theodore Pendergrass, not Harold Melvin, which you'd only know by reading Soul or Jet--he's not mentioned anywhere on the record or double-fold jacket. Pendergrass boasts just about the most powerful voice ever to hit soul music, though not the richest or most overwhelming. Although his smashes are dance tunes like "The Love I Lost" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed," his real calling is big ballads, especially ones that assert dependence--"Is There a Place for Me," "I'm Weak for You." But did they have to kick things off with "Cabaret"? B+

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: To Be True [Philadelphia International, 1975]
Black suffering above the poverty level is the lyrical twist of "Bad Luck" and "Where Are All My Friends" (written not by Gamble-Huff but by Carstarphen-McFadden-Whitehead), and to Pendergrass's credit he seems to get it--even makes a few asides. He also generates tremendous romantic authority--you really believe he wants to meet up with her "Somewhere Down the Line." He doesn't do the impossible for "Pretty Flower," though, and given the credibility of most of what remains--not to mention the intrusion of the mysterious Sharon Paige--the impossible is all that would push this over the line for me. B+

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: Wake Up Everybody [Philadelphia International, 1975]
The sustained dynamics of the title track get me past its muddle-headed lyrics--Gamble-Huff sometimes act as if "hatred, war an' poverty" came along just as they were running out subjects. And I can still go along with Teddy Pendergrass's tender strength. But sometimes he sounds a little more insecure than I think he intends--he's prone to bluster and chest-pounding, and some of his grunts are almost coughs. Anyway, he's gone. B+

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: Collector's Item [Philadelphia International, 1976]
Harold Melvin could no more give Teddy his due than he could sing lead himself, so he includes a Sharon Paige feature instead of another slow, vulnerable one--if not "To Be True" or "I'm Weak for You," then why not "Yesterday I Had the Blues," which was a hit? And Kenny Gamble could no more get off his high horse than he could do the dishes, so he includes the inevitable piece of male-chauvinism-as-moral-posture, "Be for Real," instead of "Satisfaction Guaranteed," which was a hit. And for all that this compilation is the best Teddy Pendergrass record you can buy. A-

Teddy Pendergrass [Philadelphia International, 1977]
In the immediate wake of Teddy's break with Harold Melvin, this sounded like pure cop-'em cut-'em con-'em and account-'em, but time quickly proved it an ordinary quickie. That is, the first two tunes on each side, estimable though they are, aren't what make you forget the last two. It's the last two that make you forget the last two. B

Life Is a Song Worth Singing [Philadelphia International, 1978]
Romantic schlock at its sexiest and most honest. Pendergrass is in such control of his instrument that the more commonplace of the Sigma Sound orchestrations never spoil the mood, while the good ones--let's hear it for the sax breaks on "Only You"--accent it the way they're supposed to. The key is that he's not belting much--except for one dull party number, everything is medium-tempo or slower. Pendergrass has a tendency to bluster when he belts, to come on too strong. The slow stuff--these aural seductions are hardly "ballads"--plays up his vulnerability and gives his vocal textures room to breathe a little. B+

Teddy [Philadelphia International, 1979]
Whether he's flexing his chest at Madison Square Garden or inviting the (presumably female) listener into his shower, Teddy has a self-deprecating sense of humor that his obsessive male posturing tends to obscure. Call him butch rather than macho and be thankful for small favors. B

Teddy Live! Coast to Coast [Philadelphia International, 1979]
The three live sides include no new tunes and none from his first album. Many women scream, and a few sing into his hand-held mike. Both uptempo tunes on the studio side are pretty good, but they're interspersed with an exceedingly distracting interview conducted by one Mimi Brown. MB: "How do you like your eggs?" TP: "Hard." MB: "Out of your three albums, which is your favorite?" TP: "I'd say my first." C

TP [Philadelphia International, 1980]
With the Futures doing backup and Stephanie Mills doing duet and Ashford & Simpson doing their number and Cecil Womack doing himself proud, this may well be the definitive Teddy. Only once does he break into a fast tempo, which is fine with me, because schmaltz is the man's meat. He needs, he demands, he comes on hard, he comes on subtle, he goodtimes, he longtimes--in short, he inspires heavy petting, and we all know what that can lead to. A-

Greatest Hits [Philadelphia International, 1984]
Heard in retrospect, Teddy's solo ascendancy seems a quantum more relaxed than his indenture with Harold Melvin--the aural equivalent of Tom Selleck, though Teddy isn't quite so coy about how much pussy he gets. It also seems more seminal than I would have figured, the inspiration for midtempo come-ons by everybody from Jeffrey Osborne and Al Jarreau to the creaky old O'Jays and Isleys. Teddy even induces a normal guy like me to enjoy this deplorable trend. Slick-talking greaseballs like Eddie Levert and Ronnie Isley are a social menace, but hunks like Teddy are just wonders of nature. And thank God there aren't too many of them. A-

Workin' It Back [Asylum, 1986]
Forget platonic love--this is platonic sex. I mean, the man is the best-known paraplegic in America; when he sings songs called "Never Felt Like Dancin'" or utters lines like "The thought of your body has got me erect," their status as mere collections of signs is understood literally by his fans. And thus their status as fantasy can be approached literally as well. Helps that while only "Love 4/2" is up to, let us say, vintage Jerry Butler, just about every cut at least maintains the atmosphere. Also helps that he's transferred his vocal savvy to however much of his body he's got left. B+

Greatest Hits (The Best of Teddy Pendergrass) [The Right Stuff, 1998]
I admit his subtle command of his big gruff tentpole of a voice was soul-schooled. Coming up when he did, that was only to be expected, and Pendergrass was not one to defy expectations--musically and thematically, he had all the imagination of a rubber penis. Seduction was his one great subject, and though he did it as well as it's ever been done, his sense of sin was so vestigial that even after God disabled him in a car accident he never once feinted toward the pulpit, as any proper soul man would have. In short, he's the great lost link between Lou Rawls and Keith Sweat--and a truly awesome bullshitter. A-

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: Blue Notes and Ballads [Epic Associated/Legacy, 1998]
Even if Teddy's not fully himself, Harold's not half Jerry Butler, and Sharon Paige is Sharon Paige ("If You Don't Know Me by Now," "To Be True"). ***