Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me - The Film Premiere

I grew up listening to soul music and my friends and I would spend our breaks choreographing dances in the school hall to the sounds of Otis Reading, Wilson Pickett and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Fast forward several decades and I’d begun to listen again to Teddy Pendergrass’ inimitable baritone, the voice of hits like, If You Don’t Know Me By Now and Don’t Leave Me This Way, and wondered what had become of him. I found out, by chance, while watching Supermensch, the documentary about uber talent manager, Shep Gordon, who, it transpired, had managed Teddy. The couple of minutes devoted to Shep’s relationship with Teddy in that film were enough to convince me that I had to make a film about him. It wasn’t so much a choice but a powerful compulsion - a feeling I’ve had only a few times in a long documentary-making career. I contacted Shep and said I felt that Teddy didn’t have the recognition his talent deserved and that his was a story that needed to be told. He agreed to introduce me to the Pendergrass family and to come onboard as an executive producer.


The trajectory of Teddy’s life, his rise to fame, tragic fall and bitter-sweet resurrection had, I felt, so much more potential than a music biopic and felt more the stuff of Shakespearean drama with its themes of the fragility of life and triumph over adversity. I felt its best form would be a feature-length documentary for theatrical release. While the principles of filmmaking may feel the same, the funding and release process is very different. My research soon taught me that there were myriad ways to skin this particular cat. Confused as to how best to proceed, I did what I knew how to do and self-funded a trip to Philadelphia to meet and film Teddy’s then 97-year-old mother, Ida, his ex-wife Karen and Shep.


With the trailer that we cut from this material, I convinced Christine Langan, then Head of BBC Films and fortuitously a soul fan herself, to come onboard and co-finance the film. This may sound an easy journey, but, by then, I was a year into this and there’d been a number of funding disappointments - the road to commission and finance is, as you all know, fraught with the familiar potholes of failure and disappointment. So much so, that my friend, broadcaster and playwright, Johnny Maitland and I have invented a useful acronym as shorthand: Y.A.C.D. - Yet Another Crushing Disappointment.


With development money from BBC Films, I did further research and filming and cemented relationships with key contributors. Teddy’s widow, Joan came onboard and I spent time in Philadelphia exploring the streets and friends of Teddy’s childhood. It became clear to me that Philadelphia was to become a character in the film, that the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights in the USA, Racism and the existence of a violent Black Mafia would also have a part to play in this story.. By 1982, Teddy was a solo artist on the brink of global super-stardom with an entourage of band and managers - that all stopped in a second with the accident that left Teddy quadriplegic at the age of just 31 and changed not only his life, but also the lives of all who worked with him and depended on him. There were so many rumours surrounding Teddy’s life and his accident and as the filmmaking progressed, so the detective work increased - a gift for a filmmaker and just the sort of forensic unpicking that I enjoy.


There was, however, still the matter of funding to be resolved and producers, Ian Flooks and Piers Tempest came to the rescue, securing the extra funding we needed from private investors and bringing with them much-needed feature filmmaking expertise.


The budget was £750,000 and, although this may sound generous in TV terms, it was tight - this was to be a film with a great deal of both music and archive and clearing for world rights in perpetuity is an expensive business. Co-producer, Nick Bedu and I lived as cheaply as we could on the ground. The production mobile was a cheap ‘burner’ pay-as-you-go-phone and when we brought the crew over for the longer filming trips, we lived in the cheapest Airbnbs that we could find, cheerfully crowding in the kitchen for breakfast with Blitz spirit. It was, as is anything worth doing, bloody hard work but so rewarding. When I went to Ida’s 100th birthday party last May, I realised how many people had accompanied us on the journey of making this film. We reunited Teddy’s band and recorded them playing with Teddy, projected on a screen, singing with him once more. Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me - watch it and I promise you’ll know him.

Olivia Lichtenstein