Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass: Legacy Recalled

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Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes were one of the very first groups to achieve global success for Philadelphia International Records, which was founded by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in 1971. (Others included the O’Jays, MFSB, Lou Rawls and Patti Labelle.) The 1972 release of two consecutive ballads – “I Miss You” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” the latter, a #1 pop hit and R&B chart topper – marked the start of a four-year association that yielded some of the most enduring recordings in contemporary soul music and a handful of timeless dance music classics including “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

A Philadelphia-based group, The Charlemagnes, became The Blue Notes after Harold Melvin joined them in the mid-‘50s and after a number of personnel changes became Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. While on the popular lounge circuit, Melvin had hired Theodore Pendergrass as the new drummer for the group’s touring band in 1970 and by the time the quintet joined the fledgling roster at P.I.R., he had emerged as the lead singer, with his gospel-honed, passion-filled vocals.

All told, the group ruled the R&B charts in the ’70s with ten Top 10 singles. A 36-track, 3-CD box set, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes: Be For Real – The P.I.R. Recordings (1972 – 1975), was released via the U.K.’s Cherry Red Records in 2019.

Melvin was born on June 25, 1939. He died on March 24, 1997.

Related: See where they ranked among 1972’s biggest singles

Pendergrass is the subject of a documentary, If You Don’t Know Me, described as “the powerful and moving story of [the] R&B star, who was on the brink of global superstardom when tragedy struck. A compelling tale with surprising twists and turns, the film is an intimate portrait of one of the greatest singers of his generation. It also tells how Teddy fought for the rights of African-American artists in a 1970s music industry prejudiced against black performers and reveals how, aged just 31, Pendergrass overcame terrible tragedy to get back on stage against all the odds.”

The feature-length documentary was released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2019.

The film’s world premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival resulted in an Audience Award. It also had successful screenings at other festivals and has aired on Showtime in the U.S. and was shown in theaters in the U.K. and on Sky Arts there.

Director and BAFTA award-winner Olivia Lichtenstein conceived, researched and directed the film, which reveals Pendergrass’ rise from his tough childhood in Philadelphia to become the lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

She recalls: “I grew up listening to soul music and I’d just started listening to Teddy again when I saw a documentary about Shep Gordon, the legendary artist manager who worked with everyone from Blondie to Alice Cooper – and Teddy. It made me realize that I didn’t know what had happened to him. I had a really strong sense that I had to make a film to tell his story.”

The documentary features archival footage, revealing interviews with his family, including Teddy’s ex-wife Karen, mother Ida – now 101-years-old, as well as friends and industry legends, Gamble and Huff.

Watch the film’s trailer

Pendergrass died at 59 on January 13, 2010 of respiratory failure.

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