ABOVE PHOTO: Teddy’s widow Joan Pendergrass along with a friend posed for a picture.
Photo: William T. Wade Jr.
By: Nia Ngina Meeks
Stately but not staid, some 3,500 family and friends poured into Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church to pay their final respects at the funeral services for Teddy Pendergrass last Saturday.
Most wore black, some in furs, while others donned sunglasses.
All walked slowly into the massive red-carpeted sanctuary, greeted to the strains of “Soon and Very Soon,” “I’m So Glad” and “This Little Light of Mine” offered by the church’s 200-plus member choir.
“We are at a worship service,” the Rev. Alyn Waller reminded those who filed into the balcony and the main floor. “We are here to celebrate the life and legacy of Teddy Pendergrass. Not just because he was famous, but because he was saved. So we are going to enter His gates with thanksgiving and praise!”
On that note, the tempo swung up, and Waller himself added his own timbre to the voices behind him.
Ida Pendergrass, dressed in white, sat mostly still, though. It was her beloved Teddy, her only child after six miscarriages, who lay before her.
His death at age 59 came the week before, after succumbing to respiratory complications that followed colon cancer surgery. A large portrait of her son sat before her, amid a cluster of flowers, beaming that trademark smile.
It was her son who grew up in church as a drummer licensed in gospel ministry who went on to command the hearts of women and men the world over, first as a singer, and then as a survivor and champion of those with spinal cord injuries. It was that man the two-hour service celebrated.
There were the heady days with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, when he sang lead on classics such as “I Miss You,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “The Love I Lost.” Later came his hits as a solo artist, from “The More I Get, the More I Want” to “Come Go with Me” to “Love TKO.”
Not even his devastating car accident in 1982 that left him paralyzed could stop his creative output, as “Joy” and “Love Is the Power” kept him Billboard charts-bound.
Pendergrass wanted to return to those heights, said longtime musical director Bill Jolly, who choked up as he prepared to lead a performance of “I Am Who I Am,” one of the final songs Pendergrass wrote.
“He had high hopes that this song would be his comeback song,” Jolly said, before pausing with tears. “Pray for us as we attempt to perform it for the final time.”
The famous Pendergrass growl has been silenced, but others stepped up to offer their interpretation of Pendergrass in tribute.
Bunny Sigler, a singer/songwriter from The Sound of Philadelphia era, spun “It Don’t Hurt Now.” Tyrese Gibson, who had been studying Pendergrass for a forthcoming biopic and wound up his newly “adopted” son, did a turn on “You’re My Latest, My Greatest Inspiration.” Musiq Soulchild led the choir in a rendition of “Wake Up Everybody,” which brought the audience to its feet, clapping along.
There were the condolences from upon high, brought by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who said the president and first lady offered their sympathies to the family, along with the governor, mayor and an array state and local legislators.
“Teddy Pendergrass was a remarkable and extraordinary person,” Fattah said. “A Philadelphian.”
At that, the sanctuary broke into applause for its native son. Thousands had streamed into the church the day before for a public viewing. Local radio has spotlighted Pendergrass hits since his Jan. 13 death.
Last Saturday’s services featured an array of celebrities in attendance. Baseball great Garry Maddox. Singers Stephanie Mills and Jean Carne. Producers Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble. Boxer Joe Frazier. Radio icon Dyana Williams. And so on.
They came not as stars, but as family, said Melba Moore, who also serenaded the family during the service.
“That’s why I am here,” Moore told BlackAmericaWeb.com, adding that Pendergrass was godfather to her daughter, Charli.
She recalled one studio session when she was pregnant and took a break. Pendergrass, who was serving as a background vocalist for her, playfully moved the microphone to her belly, “to see if she’s okay.”
Moore smiled at the memory.
“He had a heart and spirit that was way beyond most people,” she said. “Over the years, you will continue to hear his music. He was brilliant, focused and entrepreneurial. He had all of that talent … a special, strong man.”