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Teddy Pendergrass, sexy soulful singer, dies at 59

Teddy Pendergrass, who became R&B's reigning sex symbol

Teddy Pendergrass, who became R&B's reigning sex symbol in the 1970s and '80s with his forceful, masculine voice and passionate love ballads died Jan. 13. He was 59. Credit: AP File

Teddy Pendergrass, whose powerful, soulful voice was one of R&B's most recognizable in the '70s and '80s through hits with Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and as a solo artist, died Wednesday after battling colon cancer. He was 59.

Pendergrass died at 9:59 p.m. Wednesday with his family around him at Bryn Mawr Hospital near Philadelphia, where he had been since August after cancer-related surgery.

"To all his fans who loved his music, thank you," his son, Teddy Pendergrass II, told The Associated Press. "He will live on through his music."

Strong, distinctive voice

Pendergrass, also known as "Teddy Bear" and "The Black Elvis," started his musical career in the late '60s as a drummer with The Cadillacs doo-wop group, which merged a few years later with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. However, Pendergrass' rough, distinctive voice quickly got him attention and he became the group's lead singer for a string of classic "Philly Soul" hits in the early 1970s, including "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "Bad Luck" and "Wake Up Everybody" for Philadelphia International Records.

He went solo in 1976, becoming known for his R&B love ballads - including "Close the Door" and "Love TKO" - that rivaled Barry White and Marvin Gaye in mood-setting sexiness.

"He would sing and your underwear would unlock themselves," said Whoopi Goldberg, remembering Pendergrass Thursday on "The View." "He was extraordinary."

Near the peak of his career in 1982, Pendergrass was in a car accident that injured his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the waist down. However, Pendergrass, who had eight solo albums certified gold and four certified platinum, returned to recording within a year and was back on stage in 1985 at Live Aid, performing from his wheelchair.

"My rehabilitation was totally due to the fact that I could still focus on continuing to make music," Pendergrass told Wax Poetics magazine in 2008. "I got signs from God that he was going to let me continue."

Pendergrass made records through the '90s and performed through the 2000s. He wrote his inspirational autobiography, "Truly Blessed," in 1998. He had been working on a musical, written by Jackie Taylor, documenting his life called "I Am Who I Am," which premiered last year at Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater.

"Teddy Pendergrass was one of the greatest artists that the music industry has ever known, and there hasn't been another one since," producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff said in a statement. "We've lost our voice and we've lost our best friend, but we're thankful for what we had. It was beautiful. He was one of the best."

Services in Philadelphia

Besides his son, Pendergrass is survived by his mother, Ida Pendergrass; his wife, Joan; daughters Trisha and La Donna Pendergrass; two daughters from his marriage to Joan, Sherilla Lestrade and Jessica Avila; and grandchildren Montaurius Driane, Desaray Drane, Teddy Pendergrass III, Alana Nida Sky Pendergrass, Gabriel Gomes, Jasmine Lestrade and Jeremiah Sanford.

A public viewing will be Jan. 22 at 10 a.m. at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, 2800 West Cheltenham Ave., in Philadelphia. The funeral will be Jan. 23, also at 10 a.m. at the church. Internment will follow at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to The Joan & Teddy Pendergrass Memorial, P.O. Box 382, Gladwyne, PA 19035.

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