Earlier on this month we were excited to announce that Cleopatra Records were putting out a ‘new’ album of duets featuring Teddy Pendergrass and a whole array of brilliant soul artists. We even concluded that based on the first release of the duet between Angie Stone on ‘Love TKO’ that the album might avoid being terrible, avoiding the pitfall of Barry Manilow’s album of posthumous duets problem of simply being terrible. With the release of the full album however, that might no longer be the case. Our friends over at SoulTracks have branded this album a ‘disaster’, arguing that no one, not even Pendergrass, comes off well on this album, concluding that ‘[w]e deserve better and so does Teddy Pendergrass’s legacy’.
Admittedly, here at TFSR we have yet to give a poor review of any music that is sent to us, and we’re grateful to Cleopatra Records for sending us an advance review copy of this album. That said, we cannot avoid the obvious: this album is pretty disappointing.
Before we get into the album, it’s worth considering the legacy and history of one of the greatest soul men in history. Teddy Pendergrass began his career as a drummer for a local group in Philadelphia that morphed into Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes; by 1971, with Pendergrass not Melvin singing lead, the group was signed by Philadelphia International Records and released their first single ‘I Miss You’. Buoyed by this success, the group recorded hits such as ‘Wake Up Everybody’, ‘Bad Luck’, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, and the epic ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’.
Yet with success came trouble: Pendergrass was rightly furious that the group name suggested that Melvin was the lead singer, and whilst the group became Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes featuring Teddy Pendergrass, this was not enough and he left the group to launch his solo career in 1976. And what a solo career he had, producing incredibly romantic ballads such as ‘Close The Door’, ‘Love TKO’, ‘When Somebody Loves You Back’, and up-tempo grooves such as ‘Only You’, ‘Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose’, and the duet with Stephanie Mills on ‘I Don’t Love You Any More’.
Then tragedy struck in 1982 when his Rolls-Royce crashed, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. After a long recovery he made his first public appearance with Ashford & Simpson at Live Aid in Philadelphia performing ‘Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand’, an incredibly beautiful if emotional moment. Pendergrass got back into the studio producing a duet with Whitney Houston and the single ‘Joy’ among others, but his voice was noticeably less powerful than it once was. In 2006 Pendergrass took the decision to retire from performing; by 2009 he underwent surgery for colon cancer, and although the operation as a success he developed breathing problems and sadly died in January 2010 at the age of 59.
As far as we know, this new collection is the first attempt to release Pendergrass material after his death, but for those expecting to hear the original vocal tracks of the twelve songs selected, prepare to be disappointed. The Pendergrass vocals are re-recordings he did around 2000. As a result, Pendergrass sounds older, less dynamic and slightly worn. We’re not trying to criticize Pendergrass here, but after the accident he never truly recovered the full use of his voice, and age sadly took its toll on this giant of soul. That said, Pendergrass nonetheless remains listenable, and actually these re-recordings, or ‘re-interpretations’ if you prefer, actually highlight fragility to Pendergrass that was rarely present on his classic recordings. The older Pendergrass struggles to hit some of the notes, a clear reflection of his battle to recover from the accident, and his battle against age. But he still remains listenable, showing glimpses of his previous form along the way.
Let’s start with some of the misses on the album. Overall, Pendergrass is the one who dominates the vocals, yet given his somewhat diminished vocal range, this might not have been a wise decision. Yet when the producers allow the other artists to take the leads, it largely fails to work. Take the duets featuring the legends of soul and disco Martha Reeves and Linda Clifford struggle: both women sadly struggle to perform, each failing to recapture the beauty and power of their voices. How the producers decided to leave these vocals in is beyond comprehension, we doubt that even Reeves and Clifford can be comfortable with their performances.
The inclusion of the Ohio Players also promised to be exciting, but it somewhat disappoints: instead of bringing the funk of the old days the group brings an updated, somewhat synthesized sound. On the original the lush string and horn arrangement of ‘When Somebody Loves You Back’, typical of Philadelphia International, is sublime; here, keys and synths do most of the work, and as you might expect it doesn’t sound too great. That said, Pendergrass is actually pretty decent here, but the synths overpower him.
The inclusions of The Stylistics on the album could have made up for this. Even without their lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr they remain a force on the soul circuit, with their lead singer Eban Brown showing himself to be a loyal and talented member of the group. Surely the producers could have seen this, but on ‘It Don’t Hurt Now’ the group’s vocals are mixed down far to low, resulting in them being barely audible. ‘You’re My Latest, Greatest Inspiration’ is thankfully better: Pendergrass sounds pretty good here, with that extra fragility in his voice working rather well, with The Stylistics providing their standard vocal magic well. This is one of the best cuts on the album.
Rose Royce also make an appearance, with their current lead attempting a call-and-response between Pendergrass, but, as we pointed out with Frank Sinatra’s duets, it’s difficult to achieve such chemistry when the duet partners record separately. The only time this has really worked has been on Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross’ album and with Michael McDonald and Patti LaBelle on ‘On My Own’. Again, the song is listenable and it’s nice to hear an actual horn section, but the vocals sound a tad disjointed.
We don’t want to rip this album totally because that’s not what we do here at TFSR; we seek to bring you the best in funk and soul music, and although this album might not reach this criteria, many soul fans are likely to be intrigued by this album. And it’s not all bad, some of the songs are pretty decent. Moreover, the version of ‘Only You’ with Bonnie Pointer is also fairly good. Sure Pendergrass’s vocal here doesn’t match the incredible vocal he delivered on the original, but Pointer’s inclusion is fun and the horns are a delight. The duet with Angie Stone is also decent and arguably the best track on the album; Stone and Pendergrass are a perfect fit. And the final song, ‘I Can’t Live Without Your Love’, featuring Jody Watley and Tom Scott on saxophone is really nice, with the stripped back nature of the track suiting Pendergrass well, his pleas to Watley are passionate and romantic. Watley sounds great too, and Scott’s smooth saxophone playing raises the temperature.
So what can we take away from Duets – Love & Soul? Firstly, that such posthumous albums of duets are risky business, and produced in this way can be viewed as a cynical attempt to cash in on the devotion of soul music lovers. Secondly,adding duet partners to these tracks might have been a mistake; it may have been better to either not release these tracks, or release a ‘Live in Studio’ album with Pendergrass’ vocals and a different accompaniment than the one given here.
Nonetheless, we don’t necessarily share the view that this is a ‘disaster’. It’s certainly not great, but there are enough moments on the album that make certain tracks worth while checking out. If anything, it is nice to hear Pendergrass again after all these years, even if his voice is not the powerhouse it once was. If you’re going to pick the album up, we urge you approach with caution.