If the elusive Equal Rights Amendment ever gets ratified, the first suit might well be on behalf of males challenging Teddy Pendergrass’ four “For Women Only” concerts on his current tour. Pendergrass is in fact a classier act than that gimmick of his promoters, but when you’re the hottest ticket in town, and your gasping, clutching, lingerie-offering worshipers are the hottest ticketholders in town, forget lib. You deliver instead a Total Man to a hall full of panting predatory Total Women, unhindered by jealous escorts.
But Teddy’s male fans protested the reverse discrimination and won their way into L.A.’s Greek Theatre. The “women only” scheme also broke down in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. Needless to say, the whole controversy hasn’t exactly hurt Teddy’s business, and 26 of his 27 concerts sold out. Life Is a Song Worth Singing, his second LP since defecting from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, is headed for double platinum. Meanwhile the big single Close the Door (“Let me give you what you’ve been waiting for”) has made Pendergrass, 28, the sexiest crossover soul singer since Johnnie Taylor moved in with Disco Lady in 1976.
The true splendor of Pendergrass is his consummate cool in the heat of his own charisma. “The sex-object label doesn’t faze me,” he shrugs. “It’s not the most important part of my act. I don’t bump and grind onstage.” Better yet, when Teddy bares his arms in a tight tank top onstage, they glisten magnificently (indoors) or literally steam (outdoors). He perspires off three pounds and is now down to a lean, muscled 170 stretched over his six-foot frame. His secret, he smiles, is fitness and “making sure that all the things a lady might like are there.”
They must be. Touring necessitates a sixth-degree black-belt bodyguard. “He doesn’t look like much, but he’s deadly,” reports Teddy. When the rapturous women rush the stage, Pender-grass pacifies them at some shows by passing out Teddy Bear (his trademark) chocolate lollipops as he rushes to his dressing room. As for his sexual politics, Teddy is diplomatically macho: “I’ve always thought a lady should have her own career and get equal pay, but I will always wear the pants in my house.”
For now he can skirt the issue, since he shares his posh four-story town-house in Philadelphia’s Center City permanently only with three Dobermans and a housekeeper. But city life can be “too much.” Fans cluster around his Rolls parked outside, and hangers-on “bring their chicks over to show off.” It’s a move that can backfire, he warns: “Sometimes the chick is actually using the guy to see me and ends up staying the night.”
Pendergrass—who says if it hadn’t been for early stardom he would have become a college-educated interior designer—is ambitiously remodeling. The ground floor will be a giant disco with a statue of Teddy surrounded by Zodiac signs (he doesn’t believe but regards it as a selfless gesture for his astrologically oriented ladies); the second floor will be game and guest rooms; and the upper two stories—sauna, Jacuzzi, sun deck, master bedroom—will be off limits to all but Teddy and “the chosen person.” At last count it was ménage à multiple choice. There were three women guests coexisting in a state the housekeeper describes as “detente.”
Tragically, an ex-manager and longtime romance, Taaz Lang, was gunned down last year outside her own place in a gangland-style murder still under investigation. Today’s steadiest companion is Edy Roberts, one of the L.A. Rams Embraceable Ewe cheerleaders. But monogamy isn’t Teddy’s No. 1 contact sport: “I’m very choosy about women. I’m not about to have any lady who’s going to run me down and say I’ve got to report to her where I’m at. She has to realize,” he continues, “that I’m a traveling entertainer, and if it’s rough on her that’s the end of that.” Says friend and former secretary Linda Wills (ex-baseballer Maury’s niece), “As an only child, Teddy is very possessive and a man who needs pampering and attention.”
Born in Philadelphia, Teddy spent his childhood shuttling between his mother and relatives in the South. He saw his father only twice—the second time at his funeral. “It’s the typical ghetto story,” says Pendergrass. “My mother cleaned house, washed dishes and swept floors at a restaurant.” He sang in the Holiness Baptist Church as a toddler, was ordained a minister by age 10 (performing services) but turned to more secular music in local blues clubs during high school. By 20 he was teamed with Harold Melvin and, guided by the hit-making Gamble-Huff production team, began a string of biggies like Bad Luck and The Love I Lost that became dawn-of-disco classics. In 1975, when two albums of their “message music,” To Be True and Wake Up Everybody, went gold, Teddy himself got the message. He quit. “I was born by myself,” he reckoned, “raised by myself and am going to die by myself. I might as well sing by myself.” In early 1977 his first solo effort, Teddy Pendergrass, began a nine-month climb to platinum, something he had never achieved with Melvin.
Pendergrass now runs his own Teddy Bear Productions, manages a young singer, Karen Lee Jones, and is secure enough to walk away from a film offer alongside Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson. “Success,” he smiles, “is being able to make your life as easy or hard as you want it to be.” Like the song from the movie Nashville, Teddy Pendergrass is easy.