Left Paralyzed in a Car Crash, a Once Preeminent Soul Singer Is Working It Back After Being a Fallen Man
One night last November in a Philadelphia recording studio, singer Teddy Pendergrass was emotionally recounting his recuperation from the 1982 auto accident that left him almost totally paralyzed, his neck broken and spinal cord crushed. Unable to wipe away tears (he can move his arms only in wide arcs), he called his girlfriend of five years, dancer Karen Still, to help. When she didn’t hear, he called again, then again, until he was yelling at full volume—evidence of the battles, small and large, that quadriplegia forces him to fight daily.
Born in a North Philadelphia ghetto, Pendergrass began singing in church at 2, was ordained a Baptist minister at Wand became one of America’s most popular soul singers 17 years later. Now 35, he is the father of four children—daughters Tisha and LaDonna and sons Teddy Jr. and Tamon, aged 5 to 12—by three women. A charismatic performer, he used to stage “For Women Only” midnight shows. During one, a smitten spectator shot another woman in a struggle for a towel Pendergrass had used to wipe his face. Two years ago he released his first album since the accident, Love Language, which is about to become his sixth platinum album. Currently on the charts is his aptly titled LP Workin’ It Back, which, says Pendergrass, “is exactly how I feel.”
The singer no longer discusses the night when his green Rolls-Royce jumped the center divider on a dark curve and smashed into a tree. Nor will he discuss the ugly rumors that hounded him when his passenger, Tenika Watson, was identified as a transsexual (Pendergrass says he was giving “a casual acquaintance a ride home”). In talking with correspondent Todd Gold, Pendergrass explained, “What matters is what happens afterward.”
I ain’t going to lie, this thing’s a bitch. You go through living hell, through all kinds of anxieties, and you suffer enormous apprehensions about everything. At first you don’t know how people will accept you, and you don’t want to be seen. You don’t want to do anything. Given thoughts like that, you don’t want to live. But—and that’s a big but—you have an option. You can give it up and call it quits, or you can go on. I’ve decided to go on.
I was conscious moments after the crash. I knew I had broken my neck, and I knew I was paralyzed. I was alive when I could very easily have been dead. However, I will admit that at first I didn’t know if I was better off that way.
I spent about five weeks in the hospital. Rehabilitation, physical and emotional, was a few months more. At one point a psychiatrist asked me, “What are you going to do now?” That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. How does one know at that time what you’re going to do? Then they boot you out and tell you you’re on your own. You sure as hell don’t get false hope out of all that.
It was a matter of months before I began to feel stronger. First, my self-image was nothing. You feel worthless because all of a sudden you aren’t the way you once were. I cried a lot. I was angry. But then you have to reorganize, take a stand, and the problem becomes not what you are going to do next, but how are you going to do it.
I felt that no one understood me. All they knew was that Teddy Pendergrass, the guy who had such a big image, was now a fallen man. It was tough for people to see that the man hadn’t fallen, that the person was still there. One particular article, for instance, in a certain West Coast newspaper, was absolutely dehumanizing. The article asked, “Who will be the next Teddy Pendergrass?” Who in the hell gave that writer permission to play God? I’m not dead!
It wasn’t long before I tested my voice. I remember thinking in the hospital that if I could breathe I could sing, and I started humming television commercials. But, oh boy, hearing that first note was scary, though I realized that the blessing is that I’m still alive and I can still make music, and that made my will to live strong. I can still belt it out when I want to, but at this stage of the game, I sing a song differently. A good song is a good song—you don’t have to overdo it.
I went through hell trying to figure out how I would take care of my family, what I would do with these enormous bills and that enormous 34-room estate. I certainly wasn’t broke. But for a while, sure, I thought that maybe we’d have to take the other, smaller house I owned around the corner, until we got it together.
Well, I sold the estate, for double what I paid for it. I just moved into a new house that I had built nearby. It’s contemporary French, with Art Deco accents. It’s a new beginning. This house doesn’t look like an institution; there are absolutely no ramps. It’s majestic, which is what I’m accustomed to—nice things. I’m fairly clothes conscious, aware of my appearance. I enjoy looking good. I have pride, and that doesn’t change.
I have the same amount of movement in my arms that I had after the accident occurred. How much I will improve, I really can’t determine, nor are the doctors able to. I have physical therapy two or three times a week to keep my joints from tightening up and keep my muscles in tone.
Sure, there is a limit to what I can do. I need help getting dressed. I need help lighting a cigarette. I don’t just get up and jump on a commercial plane and go the way I used to. It takes more thought, more planning. Sometimes it takes me half an hour to open something, for instance to get a can of peanuts open. But once I get it open, nobody enjoys it better than I do, because I have fought to get it opened. Before, I took it for granted. Now I sit there and enjoy every single chew.
I’m not completely helpless. In my new house, my dressing room is a huge walk-in closet, so I can go in and see what I want to wear, as opposed to somebody picking out my clothes. I can drive my van, operating the controls with my arms. I can start my microwave, and I can turn on my music or television like everybody else. I can open my front door and garage door. To do all these things is very expensive, but the difference in the quality of life makes it worth it.
My motivation now comes from my friends and family. My children were 2 to 8 years old at the time of the accident. They tried to make sure that I didn’t feel worthless. That really booted me in the behind. They went in the corner and cried, away from me. And when they came out, it was, “Dad, what in the world can we do? Please, just show us.”
The Live Aid concert last July was a turning point for me. I went out onstage with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and sang Reach Out and Touch. It seemed appropriate. It’s the only time since the accident that I’ve performed; it gave me the chance to say to myself, “Okay, you say you want to be in this business. How badly do you want it?” And I needed to establish in my mind if people would accept me again as a performer.
I don’t know how to fully describe those few minutes onstage. Before I went on, I was scared, afraid of the unknown. Afterward I felt like I was larger than anybody there. It reaffirmed one very important fact to me, that it wasn’t important that I shook my booty right or that I had legs that turned a certain way. What the audience most appreciated was what I was saying in the song. I’ve always brought people music from the heart, looking them in the eyes and saying what I feel. I found out that what I’ve been doing all along is right for me. And if I can play to 100,000 people, I certainly should be able to handle anything else. I still know how to command the stage.
Everybody’s got something wrong with them. I see people looking funny at me in the chair. But how long can I sit around saying, “I hate it, I hate it!” My life’s work has always been to achieve, and I don’t see any reason why that should change. I still work a lot of hours. I’ve started a recording company, Top Priority, and I run my other business, Teddy Bear Enterprises, Inc. I’m writing, producing and working with some wonderful new talent. My first album since the accident, Love Language, was very beautiful and melodic, but it wasn’t the music of that aggressive person who was sure and confident about what he wants to do. Workin’ It Back is upbeat. The cover picture, it says “Hello.” The music, it’s still celebrating life.