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'Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me By Now' Premieres on Showtime
February 8, 2019  | By David Hinckley

The tragic turn in the life of the late Teddy Pendergrass has, for some reason, rarely had the resonance of tragedies that befell other popular singers.

Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me By Now, a two-hour BBC documentary that premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime, aims to reminds us what was lost when he was paralyzed in a 1982 automobile accident.

Directed by Olivia Lichtenstein, the documentary makes its case poignantly and convincingly. While he sang again after the accident, it was not exactly the same, and If You Don’t Know Me By Now reminds us how deeply his raw voice once immersed his fans in songs of love and pain.

Not to mention the whole smoldering sex appeal thing.

What the documentary does less well is give us a sense that we do know Teddy Pendergrass. We know his story, his music and his persona. There’s still a lingering sense that something else was going on. Or maybe several something elses.

If You Don’t Know Me By Now, titled after a terrific song Pendergrass recorded with Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, tracks Pendergrass’s life from a hard childhood in the Philadelphia ghetto to success beyond any kid’s fantasies.

With the Blue Notes, and even more when he broke off into a solo career, he recorded platinum albums and sold out concerts. He lived in a mansion, drove a Rolls Royce and had developed a smooth, polished, endearing persona that had him poised for the kind of crossover stardom enjoyed by a handful of artists like Marvin Gaye.

Then on March 18, 1982, his green Rolls Royce crashed into a couple of trees, throwing him into the back seat and breaking his neck. From that moment until he died in 2010 – from respiratory failure brought on in part by treatments for colon cancer – he was paralyzed from the neck down except for a bit of residual movement in his arms.

After a spell of depression during which he declared his intention to commit suicide, he recovered enough to record another seven albums, five of which went gold.

That was a remarkable, inspiring achievement. It was just a different Teddy Pendergrass. The voice was less raw and aching, and of course the presentation was different.

If You Don’t Know Me By Now spends considerable time on his life after the accident, almost all focused on his decision to forge ahead and make the most of his new life. It ends, for all practical purposes, with his much-praised appearance on stage at the 1985 Live Aid concert. We see little about his last 25 years, during which he recorded, married twice and had family and children around him.

We get no sense of how he felt about all that. In terms of getting to know him, it leaves a big gap.  

The documentary also drops regular periodic hints from people who knew Pendergrass that darker forces were at work in his life and career even before the accident. There are allusions to “things” that happen “in the music business,” and shadowy people who pull strings and control careers through intimidation and backroom power.

Friends wonder aloud if his car was sabotaged. They talk about his acrimonious split from Melvin’s group, with accompanying threats. We get a long back-and-forth on the unsolved murder of Pendergrass’s early business manager Taaz Lang, who was in the middle of a contentious financial situation with Pendergrass at the time of her death.

A considerable amount of innuendo permeates the documentary, all against the backdrop of a city and a music business full of extra-legal intrigue.

That said, Lichtenstein has put together a solid chronology of Pendergrass’s musical rise, which began when he saw the late Jackie Wilson in concert and decided that was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

The story is enhanced by video footage that shows viewers exactly what Pendergrass’s fans saw in his act, and reminds us what a memorable and distinctive voice he developed.

Pendergrass also recorded dozens of cassette tapes talking about his life, and needless to say, that’s a valuable biographical resource on which Lichtenstein draws heavily.

Between those reflections and his music, Teddy Pendergrass left us plenty. He also left the nagging sense that he may have taken a few other things with him.

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