By Michael P Coleman
I never knew why Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ lead singer was named Teddy Pendergrass.
I always wondered how Melvin felt about that.
And I always questioned whether Pendergrass had been traveling with a transgender woman at the time of his 1982 near-fatal car accident, as had been rumored at the time.
Those questions and many others are answered in the compelling new feature length documentary, Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me, now airing on Showtime. The film is anchored by new interviews with many who knew the singer, including past girlfriends, singer/songwriter Valerie Simpson, former bandmates, music legends Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, the woman who also survived the car crash, and Pendergrass’ mother.
With a narrative driven by 60 audio tapes recorded by Pendergrass, the documentary profiles an R & B legend who was poised for worldwide superstardom at the time of the car accident, which left him a paraplegic.
If You Don’t Know Me also strongly suggests that Pendergrass’ car accident may not have been a random event.
One of the documentary’s many highlights is rare video of a pre-accident Pendergrass’ live performance of “Lady,” written by Lionel Richie and made famous by Kenny Rogers. Ten years before Whitney Houston’s take on Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” cemented her place in music history, Pendergrass had planned to release “Lady” as his bid for crossover success just before the accident.
After seeing this stunning performance footage from a concert in London, I was left wondering why no record label has released his version of “Lady.” The documentary also includes snippets of Pendergrass’ soulful covers of two other pop chestnuts, Barry Manilow’s “This One’s For You” and Diana Ross’ “Reach Out And Touch.”
If You Don’t Know Me does a great job covering Pendergrass’ post-accident career, as well. While he never achieved the level of success he had enjoyed in the 1970s and early 80s, Pendergrass enjoyed several hits before his death in 2010, beginning with the duet that introduced a 21-year-old Houston to the world, “Hold Me.”
Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me is an excellent tribute to a singer who possessed one of the most soulful voices in history. It is also an inspirational story of a titan who fought his way back, and a sober reminder that life can change in the blink of an eye… or the press of an inoperable break pedal.
Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me is available on Showtime.