Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me

You do know Teddy Pendergrass, or at least his voice. He was the lead singer for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, so it’s Teddy you hear on The Love I Lost, If You Don’t Know Me By Now, Wake Up Everybody. 

When he went solo, Theodore Pendergrass was a multi-platinum seller, the sexiest man in soul, the man on whom Lenny Henry based his Theopolous B Wildebeest character, famous for seductive hits such as Turn Out The Lights, Close The Door and Love TKO.

But, as this new doc’s title suggest, it’s more likely there’s loads you don’t know.

This film shines with that big Philly sound, sparkles with Soul Train performances in big suits and crackles with subplots about the black mafia, death threats, and money trails. There’s a lot of sex, and a lot of love, a real story of black American dreams and nightmares, as well as themes of the black male sexuality, racial politics and police harassment.

I have to say I relished every moment. Director Olivia Lichtenstein probes her subject with intelligence, clearly seduced by the soul man and the soul of the man, but with her eye on the mystery and the truth. Why wasn’t he a bigger star? What really happened in that car accident in 1982 that left him paralysed? There’s a lot of rumours floating around and the film leaves none of them unanalysed.

But the film succeeds most in getting across the man’s charisma and sex appeal, his voice and his presence. It also sounds great, not just in the recordings, but in the touching scenes of the band getting back together, the Teddy Bear Orchestra re-uniting after 36 years and finding their rhythm and brassy, richly soulful sound so quickly again. 

It’s strange it’s taken this British film maker to put Teddy on his rightful stool, up there with the finest soul singers – he couldn’t have hoped for a more honest appreciation.

Featured image: Neal Preston