Attending the world premiere of the Chicago Black Ensemble Theater’s “I Am Who I Am” (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass) last night, I learned that the man whose music and stage persona crowned him the Adonis of soul music had a background steeped in the music of the church.
Soul music is, by definition, an amalgam of gospel and RnB, but the Teddy Pendergrass story shows just how this amalgam was created one artist at a time.
Pendergrass’ mother, Ida, was a God-fearing woman who allowed only gospel music in her house. Thus, the young Teddy (born March 1950) grew up to the sounds of Golden Age gospel music, sang in Philadelphia churches and — one story goes — even became an ordained minister at age ten….all which had no small influence on his own melismatic vocal style and ability to turn up the heat during a song to turn out an audience, be it a congregation or concertgoers. Pendergrass even spoke of doing a gospel album at one point.
The singer’s own belief in the power of God helped him get through the 1982 auto accident that nearly took his life and left him paralyzed from the chest down. The wheelchair-bound singer’s support of Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) causes now helps others get the education and support they need. And in 1997, he performed in a twenty-two city tour of Alex Bradford and Vinnette Carroll’s Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.
The Black Ensemble Theater’s musical chronicles Pendergrass’ career as a member of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (when fans of his singing thought he was Harold) to his subsequent success as a soul singer who was the first black performer to have five consecutive platinum albums, to the accident that left him down but certainly not out. And as with Jackie Taylor’s other musical hits, one leaves the theater humming the songs and inspired by the story of how people can overcome insurmountable odds to do great things.
Today, March 16, Pendergrass will appear in person at the musical during a special fundraiser for the Black Ensemble Theater, which is in the process of raising $20 million to build out a warehouse a few blocks from its current site. When completed in two years, the new facility will house a much-needed expansion for the 32 year-old Chicago institution, including several theater spaces and a soul food restaurant.
For more information about “I Am Who I Am,” contact the Black Ensemble Theater at 773-769-4451 or www.blackensembletheater.org.