Encore

The Trials of Teddy Pendergrass

A car crash put the brakes on the soulful singer's career on March 18, 1982

In the early '80s, Teddy Pendergrass could do no wrong. Nicknamed Teddy Bear by adoring fans who fought over his sweat-soaked towels at ''For Women Only'' concerts, the robust, husky-voiced singer was at a peak. As the former lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, then as a solo artist, the Philadelphia-born Pendergrass had sold more than 10 million records in a decade-long stretch. But his life and career almost came to an end in the early hours of March 18, 1982, in Philadelphia, when his Silver Spirit Rolls-Royce hit a guardrail and crossed over into the opposite lane before hitting two trees. The impact jammed the doors, trapping the singer and a passenger, Tenika Watson, for almost an hour until both were freed. While Watson was relatively unhurt, Pendergrass, 31, was left partially paralyzed.

At the time, the singer's license had been suspended for unpaid parking tickets (he had also wrecked a Maserati the previous week). Rumors that alcohol was a factor were later discounted by the police. However, the passenger turned out to be a transsexual nightclub performer whose original name was John Watson. Pendergrass would only say that Watson was a casual acquaintance whom he was giving a ride home. Remarkably, the incident did little damage to the singer's reputation. The story faded quickly in those pre-Hard Copy days.

Recovering from the accident, though, forced Pendergrass to make difficult physical and emotional adjustments. ''You feel worthless because all of a sudden you aren't the way you once were,'' he said four years later. ''I cried a lot. I was angry.'' With the help of intensive therapy and the support of his wife, Karen, and his four children, Pendergrass resumed his recording career, starting with 1984's Love Language.

Though he remains in a wheelchair and has limited use of his arms, Pendergrass is still a force in the music world. In 1993 he released his 17th album, A Little More Magic; his performance of one single, ''Voodoo,'' was nominated for a Grammy. Despite recent appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show and Soul Train, the singer currently has no plans to tour. ''I have renewed vocal strength,'' Pendergrass said last year, while celebrating his 25th anniversary in music. ''I'm more confident and comfortable in my ability, and I'm less afraid.... I feel very thankful.''

Time Capsule
March 18, 1982
America toned up with Jane Fonda's Workout Book, while the J. Geils Band scored with its ''Centerfold.'' Dallas was the top prime-time sudser on television, and Porky's brought home the bacon on the big screen.

Originally posted Mar 18, 1994 Published in issue #214 Mar 18, 1994 Order article reprints