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Wednesday, August 11, 2004  

Music: The Blue Notes were ultimate

American music can be like a knitted sweater. Pull on a thread and watch a sleeve, or the whole thing, unravel. I am reminded of that by a recent experience of that interconnectedness. I developed a renewed interest in soul singer Teddy Pendergrass after Janet Jackson mentioned having fantasized about him as a child. She enthused over having the hots for the Teddy Bear (pictured) when she was 12 years old, in an effort to overcome sagging sales of her new album, Damita Jo. It was also influential that Nelly has one of the most popular Hip Hop recordings ever with a cover of Pendergrass.

(Jul. 23, 2004) Somewhere, Teddy Pendergrass is smiling. His 1981 masterpiece of seduction “Come Go With Me” fuels the hit single “My Place,” sung by new Charlotte Bobcats co-owner Nelly and ghetto crooner Jaheim, and has become the first joint since Eminem’s “Without Me” in 2000 to earn Greatest Gainer and Most Airplay Adds on three different radio formats.

“My Place” is the #1 most added at track on the Urban, Rhythm Crossover and Top 40 charts, and is the Greatest Gainer on all three as well.

Five recently purchased Pendergrass CDs, one autobiography and a performance DVD later, I'm reviewing the Blue Notes. I suppose that is inevitable. Teddy Pendergrass developed the style that would make him one of soul music's greatest success stories while performing with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes from 1969 to 1975.

The Ultimate Blue Notes, the most attractive compilation of material by the Blue Notes at the peak of their popularity I could find, relies heavily on the Pendergrass era, but the other Blue Notes are also present enough to remind one this was a group. Harold Melvin's classy tenor shines on the group's rendition of "Hope We Can Be Together Soon," a harmonious duet with the very talented Sharon Paige. She is the only female member in the Blue Notes' 50-plus years of history that I am aware of again. Paige is again represented in "You Make Me Feel So Good," a duet with Pendergrass. The other male members of the Blue Notes -- Laurence Brown, Bernard Wilson, Lloyd Parks and Jerry Cummings -- provide backup and the seemingly effortless integrated harmony on other numbers, including "Weak for You," "The Love I Lost," and "Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back").

Still, one comes away from The Ultimate Blue Notes in awe of Teddy Pendergrass. How in the world could Harold Melvin have thought it was just fine to emphasize his name instead? Why did he believe the group would maintain its status without the young baritone the audience's ears had become attuned to? There are at least three faces of Pendergrass on the album. He is bewildered and nonplussed mark wondering where all his pals and money went on the amusing "Where Are All My Friends?" The wronged lover in "If You Don't Know Me By Now" "I Miss You," and "Yesterday, I Had the Blues." The preacher comes out on "Bad Luck," with a monologue in which the young man from Philadelphia takes President Richard M. Nixon to task. The most surprising cut on the CD is "Don't Leave Me This Way." The Blue Notes' version, dominated by Pendergrass, is, if anything, better than the hit disco queen Gloria Gaynor made of the same song. Pendergrass' baritone is mellow through most of the song only to build to a passionate crescendo at the finale. I had never heard the Blue Notes do the song before and feel I've been deprived all these years.

There were five charting albums by the Blue Notes during the Pendergrass period -- Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (1972), Black and Blue (1973), Wake Up Everybody (1975), To Be True (1975) and, All Their Greatest Hits (1976). All where products of Philadelphia International Records when it ruled the soul music roost. They are all probably worthy of purchase. However, The Ultimate Blue Notes is an excellent distillation of the group's finest work.

Pendergrass emerged from the Blue Notes. But, they were far from his only influence. He says the vocalist he was most in awe of is fellow baritone, Marvin Junior of The Dells. Though I was a child during the Blue Notes' 'blue period,' I remember the stand-outs, such as "If You Don't Know Me By Now." I was more cognizant of Pendergrass' hits in the late '80s and '90s, such as his smash duet with Whitney Houston, "Hold Me." I recall a single song by The Dells, the famous "Oh What a Night," which still gets plenty of play. But, after some online exploration, I want to know more. I now realize that the movie, The Five Heartbeatsis about The Dells.

One of the highlights of The Dells' career, which introduced them to the "Hip-Hop Generation", was when director Robert Townsend wrote the inspiring movie The Five Heartbeats based on the tumultuous lives and career of The Dells . This film produced the hit sound track chartbuster "A Heart Is A House For Love" which catapulted The Dells into another dimension as 'superstars'.

I'll be picking up a compilation of The Dells' best material at a music store this week. I tugged a thread on the sweater of American music and a sleeve is unraveling.

Reasonably related

A brief history of the Blue Notes.

11:30 PM