News of the death of Teddy Pendergrass found many of us posting videos of the singer at his prime, teasing live crowds with “Love TKO” and “Close the Door” as he sauntered the stage in his revealing custom white tank-top in ’79 and ’80.
This clip of singing-songwriter duo Ashford & Simpson bringing Pendergrass to the stage at the 1985 Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium brought chills back then and still does. Three years earlier, the brakes failed on the Rolls Royce that Pendergrass was driving through Philly’s northwest Germantown district, leading to an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. So in visual contrast to his heyday, Pendergrass comes on at Live Aid in a motorized wheelchair, the body he used to evoke such sensualized instincts in his audience now almost a heartbreaking redundancy.
Ashford & Simpson–who met at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in the mid-’60s–had made their songwriting careers specializing in both ecstatic love songs and grandiose, gospel-tinged tunes like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” The duo wrote the last as Diana Ross’s first solo single in 1969 as a strikingly plaintive plea for fellowship in contrast to, for example, the Temptations’ more confrontational “Ball of Confusion” during that year of Nixon, Manson, My Lai and Altamont. Sixteen years later, “Reach Out and Touch” seemed fitting again as cracks of compassion like Live Aid started showing through the Reagan/Thatcher/Gecko era of greed-is-good.
A&S reintroduce Pendergrass to his city in near church-meeting style, from Nick’s heartfelt build-up intro to the duo’s welcoming of the singer with upraised arms. By the time of his accident, Pendergrass had left Gamble & Huff’s CBS-subsidized Philadelphia International Records label–which had just been taken over by EMI–to record with Asylum. A bit of stretch, but maybe we can see this clip as A&S redelivering Pendergrass back to the City of Bro Love and the world.
Another reading: Pendergrass re-emerged in ’85 in this context of an elongated, natural-and-man-made crisis in continental Africa. News of his demise in ’10 came in against the heartbreaking background of an instant though similarly devastating natural crisis for the African-descended people of Haiti–another time for the world to reach out.