Pendergrass, Teddy, and Patricia Romanowsky. Truly Blessed. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998.
Teddy decided to become a singer in the time it took him to watch one act, the extraordinary stage performance of one of the most popular recording stars of the day. The performer? You guessed it: Jackie Wilson.
Suddenly, the music came up, the spotlight hit the stage, and out strode the magnificent Jackie Wilson. I’ll never forget it: He was so clean in his tailored suit and tie, revealingly tight pants, and a fresh, perfectly sculpted ‘do. The Uptown erupted in cheers and screams as he grabbed the microphone and launched into his show. Whatever Jackie sang—it could have been his latest hit, “Baby Workout,” or “Night,” or “Lonely Teardrops,” or “Reet Petite”—he gripped the audience in the palm of his hand. He could croon as beautifully as Sam Cooke, shout as loud as James Brown, and move like nobody else. A former Golden Gloves champion, Jackie demonstrated an athletic grace as he executed a series of seemingly effortless splits, spins, drops, and steps so smooth that he glided across that stage as if it were polished glass. There was only one word for Jackie in his prime, and that was “electric.”
Girls and women rushed the stage, screaming and reaching out for him. Security guards manned a barricade that created ten feet of no-man’s-land between the front row of seats and the stage, so that no one got close enough to touch Jackie, no matter how close to the edge he danced. Still, his every glance, every note, every move teased the fans into a wilder frenzy. The female reaction was nothing less than pure hysteria, and Jackie reveled in it.
Suddenly Jackie dropped to the floor and slowly rolled off the stage. Of course, this part of his act was staged, but we didn’t know that, so when he toppled off the stage and landed hard on the theater floor, everyone gasped and stood up, craning to see. Then we all rushed down the aisle, certain that Jackie had been injured.
Lying on his back, he seemed hurt, but I saw him gesture to a guard to let a girl through the barrier. She fell upon him, wrapped her legs around his hips, and started rubbing her body against him. He was clearly enjoying it. From where I stood, I could have sworn they were actually making love as a throng of screaming, reaching women surrounded them. To say I couldn’t believe my eyes barely begins to describe my reaction, an unfamiliar mix of awe, amazement, and envy. On the one hand, I couldn’t believe Jackie was getting away with this: He’s really having sex on the floor of the Uptown! I thought. Man, I’ve gotta find a way to do this! If I had to name a single event that convinced me to become a singer, this was it.
Here is an excerpt from a transcript of a National Public Radio interview promoting the book, Truly Blessed. The interview was conducted by Terry Gross on the program Fresh Air, originally broadcast on October 14, 1998 on WHYY (public radio).*
TEDDY PENDERGRASS: And I saw, got a chance to see Jackie Wilson…
TERRY GROSS: Yeah, you said…
PENDERGRASS: That changed my life…
GROSS: It really changed you.
PENDERGRASS: It changed my life around, so it was…
GROSS: What was it about the Jackie Wilson performance that…?
PENDERGRASS: Just a consummate performance. I mean, just my image of him was just so huge, and he just controlled that stage. His audience was in the palm of his hands, and as I say in the book, you know, the ladies ran down to the front of the stage when they thought he had fell off to hurt himself. He had just rolled off intentionally and rolled off onto the floor, and to see the ladies run through the guardrails and just lay on top of him and appear to make mad, passionate love to him in the middle of the floor at whatever time it was that morning, to me it was just, my jaws dropped. My God…
GROSS: How can I do that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
PENDERGRASS: Right. That’s what I want to do.
Jackie Wilson had a way with “getting away with” outrageous stage behavior. Read more in Doug Henderson’s account of a show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and in my post about Jackie’s skill at pushing the limits on The Ed Sullivan Show.
*Interview available at http://www.wbur.org/npr/122575226/in-memoriam-soul-icon-teddy-pendergrass