PHILADELPHIA — Teddy Pendergrass, who became R&B’s reigning sex symbol in the 1970s and ’80s with his forceful, masculine voice and passionate love ballads and later became an inspirational figure after suffering a devastating car accident that left him paralyzed, died Wednesday at age 59.
The singer’s son, Teddy Pendergrass II, said his father died at a hospital in suburban Philadelphia. The singer underwent colon cancer surgery eight months ago and had “a difficult recovery,” his son said.
“To all his fans who loved his music, thank you,” his son said. “He will live on through his music.”
Pendergrass suffered a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from the waist down in the 1982 car accident. He spent six months in a hospital but returned to recording the next year with the album “Love Language.”
He returned to the stage at the Live Aid concert in 1985, performing from his wheelchair.
Pendergrass later founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, an organization whose mission is to encourage and help people with spinal cord injuries achieve their maximum potential in education, employment, housing, productivity and independence, according to its Web site.
Pendergrass, who was born in Philadelphia on March 26, 1950, gained popularity first as a member of Harold Melvin&the Blue Notes.
In 1971, the group signed a record deal with the legendary writer/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The group released it first single, “I Miss You,” in 1972 and then released “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” which was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Pendergrass quit the group in 1975 and embarked on a solo career in 1976. It was his solo hits that brought him his greatest fame. With songs such as “Love T.K.O.,” ”Close the Door“ and ”I Don’t Love You Anymore,“ he came to define a new era of black male singers with his powerful, aggressive vocals that spoke to virility, not vulnerability.
His lyrics were never coarse, as those of later male R&B stars would be, but they had a sensual nature that bordered on erotic without being explicit.
“Turn Off the Lights” was a tune that perhaps best represented the many moods of Pendergrass — tender and coaxing yet strong as the song reached its climax.
Pendergrass, the first black male singer to record five consecutive multi-platinum albums, made women swoon with each note, and his concerts were a testament to that adulation, with infamous stories of women throwing their underwear on stage for his affection.
Following the car accident, it was 19 years before Pendergrass resumed performing concerts. He made his return on Memorial Day weekend in 2001, with two sold-out shows in Atlantic City, N.J.
Pendergrass is survived by his son, two daughters, his wife, his mother and nine grandchildren.