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New documentary will shed light on life of Teddy Pendergrass

TRAGIC: Teddy Pendergrass was just 31 when he was left paralysed by a car accident in Philadelphia

HE WAS described as the “Black Elvis ”, one of the brightest stars of his generation Philadelphia soul singer Teddy Pendergrass’ husky, potent baritone was the definition of R&B seduction in the 1970s with classic hits like The Love I Lost and If You Don’t Know Me by Now, as lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and Close the Door, Turn Off the Lights and Love T.K.O. as a solo artist.

His concerts – some of them presented for women only – drew screaming, ecstatic crowds and female fans would fling teddy bears and lingerie onstage.

Pendergrass went on to make history as the first African-American R&B artist to release four consecutive platinum albums.

He was set to crossover from being a leading R&B star to major global superstar.

Then one night in 1982 tragedy struck and everything changed.

Pendergrass was driving in the East Falls section of Philadelphia when he lost control of his Rolls Royce.

His passenger that night Tenika Watson, a nightclub performer, survived the crash with minor injuries.

But Pendergrass suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. He was 31. Following the tragic accident there were many who doubted the soul singer’s ability to ever return to making music.

However he went on to record hugely successful albums in the 1980s and 90s and made an emotional return to the stage historic Live Aid concert in Philadelphia in front of a live audience of over 99,000.

Despite his phenomenal success, it’s fair to say there is a whole generation of music fans who may not be as familiar with Pendergrass’s work in the same as they might be with other male R&B icons such as Luther Vandross.

However, a new documentary is aiming to shed light on his inspirational triumph over tragedy story.

The film, called If You Don’t Know Me, not only charts Pendergrass’ rise to stardom from a poor background in Philadelphia and the long journey that marked his return to performing, but also how he fought for the rights of African-American artists in a 1970s music industry prejudiced against black performers.

INSPIRATIONAL: Teddy triumphed over tragedy

The film has met with huge praise from film critics and for BAFTA award-winning director Olivia Lichtenstein the project was a labour of love.

Speaking to Life and Style about how she got the inspiration to make If You Don’t Know Me, she says: “I’ve always been a soul girl. When I was at school in break time we’d be in the hall doing little formation dances to soul records. I remember seeing this documentary about Shep Gordon who was Teddy’s manager.

“There were a few minutes in the film about Teddy and I saw it and I realised I didn’t know what had happened to Teddy. For some reason I’d forgotten about him.

“And I got this overwhelming desire to make a film about him and this has happened to me only a handful of times in my career.”

Lichenstein continues: “I managed to track down an e-mail for Shep. When we eventually spoke I told him that Teddy doesn’t have the legacy he deserves, that people should know about him and know his story and hear his music and Shep said okay.”

The 105-minute documentary includes rarely seen original footage of Teddy’s performances as well as candid interviews with people who performed with him, close friends and family members.

Among them are his mother Ida – now 100-years-old, ex-wife Karen and, all of whom co-operated fully with the production and Lloyd Parks who sang with him in Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes.

If You Don’t Know Me also doesn’t shy away from controversy.

Following the tragic accident, rumours circulated in the popular media of the time about Pendergrass’ sexual orientation following revelations that Watson was a transsexual woman.

“I don’t shy away from asking the difficult questions because I know that’s what the audience will want me to do. As far as Teddy and his sexual preferences go I did ask Tenika and she said he didn’t know about her being a trans woman and Teddy himself said that as well.”

Not that it matters but at that time in 1982 it was considered gossip worthy.

There were also rumours that dogged the singer following the death of his first manager and girlfriend Taaz Lang, who was murdered in 1977.

At the time there were some who suggested that Pendergrass had something to do with it.

“If you don’t ask the difficult questions what you get is a film that feels too superficial and you don’t get a sense that you’ve gone into the subject and explored all the issues,” Lichtenstein says.

If You Don’t Know Me premieres in the UK on February 19

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