Interview conducted in person, September 1977 at CBS Records, New York City
CURRENTLY fulfilling all the promise he's ever shown when with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes with a flourishing solo career, we took a little of the irrepressible "Teddy Bear's" time to rap about the past and the future!
His early years : "Well, my mother worked in a night club right next to the Latin Casino in New Jersey so I was exposed to music from a very early age. Plus I'd begun singing in church at two years of age and I've been singing for as long as I can remember! You know, in the house, in the shower, in the kitchen — wherever. My mother always encouraged me and then seeing people like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and so on at this club gave me a chance to see top performers in action.
"I even have a photo of me with Chubby Checker when I was at the ripe old age of fourteen!
"I guess back then I didn't really realize just how hard it was working in entertainment. All you see is the glamour, the lights."
First musical experiences: "I guess I was around fourteen when I got my first group together. I'd been playing drums and singing before that, too. The Paramounts — that was the name of that first group.
"I got kind of dismayed and disappointed with that though — because we got ripped off. You know, we were supposed to record and nothing ever really happened — we cut some things, but they were never even released.
"Anyway, in between doing other things, I got a band together called 'Signs of Time' when I played drums."
Other occupations: "Now in between working with the group, I had a variety of different jobs. I worked as a waiter, a dish-washer and a waffle-maker!
"Now that was interesting! I was fifteen at the time, and it was just incredible because we turned out some three hundred waffles a day! Eventually — after two weeks — I got kind of tired of it.
"It was crazy — you had to remember which of the sixteen irons was for which waffle — there was blackberry, blueberry, raspberry!! It was almost as much a problem remembering which was which as it is remembering lyrics!
"Then, I also was a truck driver for a short spell — a real short spell, because we were involved with moving furniture and one day, a table fell on my foot and the guy in charge just told me to go on back to work!
"It was kinda funny though when I first started out doing that because I had never driven a truck before and here I am with the guy telling me all about the route while I'm just looking at this sixteen-foot truck wondering how I'm gonna deal with it.
"Oh, yeah, also in between working with the group, I jarred shrimps — so I guess I was doing a few interesting things!"
With Little Royal : "Yes, I worked for about a year as Little Royal's drummer. This guy was really like James Brown's brother — I mean, he danced like James, sounded like him — the whole thing.
"Anyway what happened was, I was working with this whole group down in Atlantic City at a night club there — though we were doing everything but performing! Washing dishes, waiting on tables — everything — just waiting for that one break when some act wouldn't show and we'd get a chance to show what we could do. So people knew we were into music and one day, we got a chance.
"I remember I sang The Dells' "Stay In My Corner" — we really turned it out!
"Then in early 1968, I ran into Little Royal. He needed a drummer — so off I went. I stayed with him till late '68 and I left when we were up in Quebec. I just quit! We were supposed to be doing a gig after that in Connecticut which really isn't too far from Philly, my home town, but I was just disgusted with the way everything was going, so I quit! With no money, either! I had about 25 dollars and I went on to Montreal.
"I guess I might have ended up staying there to work — after all, I only had like two dollars left and that was not going to get me very far. Fortunately, I ran into a guy there who was going back to New York and said he could use the company driving back there — so we went back and he gave me the money to go on to Philly.
"Funny, I've never seen that guy since but I sure would like to thank him — because I might have ended up in Montreal for ever!"
The Bluenotes: "I started drumming around late '68, early '69 with The Cadillacs who later became The Bluenotes with Harold (Melvin). In fact, there were two sets of Cadillacs before the Bluenotes came into being and then another two before we got to record in 1972.
"Originally, I was the drummer but when the group broke up in 1970 (before becoming Bluenotes), Harold asked me to stay with him and for us to work together with me singing."
The future: "Basically, I'm very contented in what I'm doing. Yes, I'd like to get into acting because it's another medium for expression and I want to be able to project. People think it's just a matter of going out there and acting but I know there's much more to it.
"I also know that I will never be able to give it 100% of my time — I'll always be involved in singing.
"But say with doing television: I don't want it to be just a thing on these shows where you just go out, sing and that's it. I think you can do so much more than that."
Being on the road: "I really want to concentrate on both concert dates — in theatres as opposed to big stadiums — and clubs, because I'm really the kind of singer who wants to get involved with the audience.
"For the concerts, we'll be using four dancers as well as the seven musicians and three girls doing background vocals. Yes, it's a lot of people to carry with you and that doesn't even include the sound people and so on.
"But I figure it's like this: if you want to get the most out of something — in this case, my show — you've got to put the most in. And it means sacrifice in terms of financial gains but I feel it's worthwhile because I want to be able to have a really good show together. It's a big step from what I was doing before and it's important."
Certainly, Mr. Pendergrass's confidence and ability look like taking him a long way. His immediate acceptance as a solo act indicates that he's going to be around for a long time to come!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.