Big Break Records has recently reissued two albums from the late, great Teddy Pendergrass in remastered and expanded editions. 1980’s TP, originally released on Philadelphia International Records, welcomed the smoldering soul man into the 1980s and premiered one of his most beloved recordings, “Love TKO.” Eight years later, having survived a life-threatening accident, Pendergrass solidified his comeback with the Elektra LP Joy.
By the time of 1980’s platinum seller TP, the artist with the deep, resonant baritone had come into his own since departing the ranks of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. The fourth of Pendergrass’ seven studio albums for Philadelphia International, TP reflected a number of changes in The Sound of Philadelphia. MFSB Mk. I was long-disbanded, though some of its members were actually returning to the fold (such as Norman Harris, whose The Harris Machine was issued on PIR in 1980). Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, and The Three Degrees had all departed the label’s roster. The names of Dexter Wansel and the team of McFadden and Whitehead were more likely to be found on a PIR label than Bobby Martin or Ronnie Baker. Disco, itself inspired by the lush Philly style, had also left its mark. In a first for a Pendergrass solo album, TP featured no songs or productions by label chiefs Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, and welcomed a number of “outside” talents. The result was one of Pendergrass’ strongest, and most musically diverse, efforts.
The soaring “Is It Still Good to Ya,” introduced by Ashford and Simpson as the title track of their own 1978 album, inspired some of the singer’s grittiest and most intense vocals. Invited by Gamble and Huff to produce the song for Pendergrass, Ashford and Simpson enlisted many of the New York-based musicians heard on their own recording. Philly vet John Davis (of Monster Orchestra fame) provided the rhythm arrangement while veteran Arif Mardin made a rare Philly appearance as the horn and string arranger. The Ashford and Simpson sessions also yielded the loose and spirited “Girl You Know.”
Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs El’s scorching uptempo “Take Me in Your Arms Tonight” was recorded live in the studio with duet partner Stephanie Mills; both artists shared management (Shep Gordon) and numerous concert appearances together. Pendergrass and Mills also joined their distinctive voices in song for a smoldering quiet storm highlight. “Feel the Fire” was written and first recorded by Peabo Bryson and subsequently covered by Mills, solo; Pendergrass and Dexter Wansel’s slow-burning production emphasized the sensual connection between the two artists.
Cecil Womack penned two tracks for TP: the romantic, upbeat “I Just Called to Say” (co-written with Wansel) and standout cut “Love TKO.” David Oliver had sung “Love TKO” first, earlier in 1980, but Teddy made it his own. In tandem with the lean production by Womack, Wansel and Biggs El, and the grooving arrangement by Wansel, Pendergrass transcended its lyrical play on a boxing term to create a stone-cold classic of wistful soul.
In his excellent liner notes, Christian John Wikane quotes Valerie Simpson on Teddy: “He had these great tear-jerking ballads. You had a tendency to want to give him one of those except then your album becomes overburdened with slow songs so we wanted to try to give him a little bit of a tempo.” But for fans of those silky-smooth ballads, TP offered “Can’t We Try” from Motown melody master Ron Miller and co-writer Ken Hirsch. Originally recorded by Thelma Houston for Berry Gordy’s label, Teddy’s version made it onto the soundtrack of the film Roadie; MFSB flautist and ace ballad arranger Jack Faith provided the sublime, understated chart featuring background vocals from The Jones Girls.
The biggest departure from TP‘s overall sound, though, was the album closer “Let Me Love You.” Co-producers/writers Gene McFadden and John Whitehead (working here with Jerry Cohen) had been associated with the artist since his Blue Notes days, but for “Let Me Love You,” they delivered an edgy fusion of soul and rock embellished with searing, liquid guitar flourishes.
BBR’s newly-expanded issue of TP adds five bonus tracks including the 12-inch version of “This Gift of Life.” The ballad, written by Gamble and Huff and arranged by Bobby Martin, first appeared on the flipside of “Can’t We Try” and was presented in 12-inch form backed with “Nine Times Out of Ten” from the LP It’s Time for Love. But the song didn’t appear on an album until 1982’s This One’s for You (assembled from tracks of various vintages). It’s a quintessential Philly mood piece with lush strings and an emotive, impassioned vocal from TP. BBR also gives listeners more to savor of “Take Me in Your Arms Tonight” with its 12-inch extended version, and caps things off with the single edits of “Love TKO,” “Can’t We Try” and “Is It Still Good to Ya.” Nick Robbins has remastered.
On March 18, 1982, Teddy Pendergrass was involved in a car accident which left him a quadriplegic. Even this great challenge didn’t keep him down. PIR issued two albums of earlier recordings (This One’s for You and Heaven Only Knows) after his accident, and in 1985, he returned to the stage with an emotional performance of Ashford and Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” at Live Aid. He signed to Asylum in 1984 and returned to the recording studio with Love Language and Workin’ It Back. In 1988, he consummated his comeback on Asylum’s sister label Elektra for Joy, the second of his albums just reissued by BBR. Marrying contemporary production values with touches of quiet storm and classic soul, it would earn the singer his highest chart placement in almost a decade, since 1979’s Teddy, and restore his husky pipes to the radio airwaves with a pair of Top 3 R&B singles. Pendergrass himself was joined on production duties by up-and-coming singer-songwriter Miles Jaye, Reggie Calloway and Vincent Calloway, and Philadelphia’s Nick Martinelli.
The Calloways and Joel Davis’ title track and opening song “Joy” found Pendergrass’ voice remarkably unchanged from his heyday, but the setting was quite different. The lush orchestration favored in the Philly days took second place to the beat-driven sound of programmed drums and icy-cool synthesizers. “Joy,” setting the tone for an optimistic and romantic album, placed Teddy squarely in a new jack swing soundscape. Bolstered by Jerry Hey’s effervescent horns, “Joy” was as evident in the track as on the album cover featuring the beaming singer. The Calloways also co-wrote and produced the sparkling ballad which expressed Pendergrass’ feelings that “Love is the Power.” His warm, tender vocals were echoed on the comforting and melodic “This is the Last Time (You’ll Ever Have to Cry).” Nick Martinelli helmed the Gabriel Hardeman/Annette Hardeman tune which featured both an impressive, sultry vocal solo from Charlene Holloway and a passionate spoken-word rap from TP.
The singer who once implored “Turn Off the Lights” and “Close the Door” was in his natural milieu on James Carter, Kevin Askins and Marvin Hammett’s breezy yet lusty ode to “2 A.M.,” the first of three consecutive tracks on the LP produced by Miles Jaye. The young Jaye played to Pendergrass’ strengths as an irresistible lover on both his wish to be “Good to You” and his upbeat promise that “I’m Ready.” The message of love threaded throughout Joy was clearly a personal one for Pendergrass. Jaye also produced Carter, Askins and Hammett’s throwback “Through the Falling Rain (Love Story),” the closest track in spirit to Pendergrass’ 1970s classics, and “Can We Be Lovers” which married a muscular, pleading lead vocal to a slinky groove.
Typical of the era, numerous extended and reconceived single remixes were released of the album’s tracks. BBR has happily added 5 such rarities to this first-time expanded CD reissue: three mixes of the invitingly mellow “2 A.M.” and two of “Joy.” Wikane again provides an informative and illuminating chronicle of the album’s creation, with choice contributions from Miles Jaye and Reggie Calloway.
Both of Big Break’s reissues are attractively designed with lavish booklets and BBR labels based on the original label designs, and are housed in Super Jewel Boxes. The fine sound has been overseen by Nick Robbins and producer Wayne A. Dickson. Though TP and Joy are separated by nearly a decade, they both stand as testaments to the enduring art of Teddy Pendergrass. Though the soul superstar passed away in 2010 at the age of 59, his indomitable spirit lives on.
Both albums from Cherry Red’s Big Break Records label can be ordered at the links below!
- Is It Still Good to Ya
- Take Me in Your Arms Tonight (featuring Stephanie Mills)
- I Just Called to Say
- Can’t We Try
- Feel the Fire (featuring Stephanie Mills)
- Girl You Know
- Love TKO
- Let Me Love You
- This Gift of Life (12-Inch Long Version) (PIR 12-inch single 4Z9-02898, 1980)
- Take Me in Your Arms Tonight (12-Inch Long Version) (PIR 12-inch single 4Z8-01059, 1980)
- Can’t We Try (Single Version) (PIR single ZS9-3107, 1980)
- Love TKO (Single Version) (PIR single ZS9-3116, 1980)
- Is It Still Good to Ya (Single Version) (PIR single ZS6-70062, 1980)
- 2 A.M.
- Good to You
- I’m Ready
- Love is the Power
- This is the Last Time
- Through the Falling Rain (Love Story)
- Can We Be Lovers
- 2 A.M. (All Night Mix) (Elektra/Asylum 12-inch single ED 5274, 1988)
- Joy (Extended Remix) (Elektra/Asylum 12-inch single ED 5298, 1988)
- 2 A.M. (4 A.M. Mix) (Elektra/Asylum 12-inch single ED 5274, 1988)
- Joy (Instrumental) (Elektra/Asylum 12-inch single ED 5298, 1988)
- 2 A.M. (6 A.M. Mix) (Elektra/Asylum 12-inch single ED 5274, 1988)