On this day in 1982, R&B superstar Teddy Pendergrass – the husky voiced, chocolate “teddy bear” who mesmerized a whole generation of women with his sexual swagger – was involved in a horrific car accident in Philadelphia that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Controversy has surrounded the crash ever since, with questions centered on the mystery person who was riding in the car with him. Initial rumors ranged from the passenger being a man, to being the wife of Julius “Dr. J” Irving. Eventually, the passenger was identified as Tenika Watson, a former sex worker, nightclub performer and transgender woman.
In 2014, Oprah Winfrey’s “Where Are They Now?” series on OWN featured Watson looking back on the night of the crash. She claimed that Teddy had offered to drive her home.
But according to some fans, Tenika was a smoke screen put forth by Teddy’s family to squash rumors about who was really in the car that night, allegedly Dr. J’s wife Turquoise Brown.
What is indisputable about the night of March 18, 1982 was that Pendergrass was on Lincoln Drive at 1:30 in the morning returning home from a nightclub in his green Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit. He sideswiped the center divider, causing the car to careen into the oncoming lane and hit two trees. As the Rolls jumped the curb, Teddy’s head hit the roof of the car twice. The second impact broke his neck. Pendergrass and his passenger were reportedly trapped in the wreckage for 45 minutes. While the passenger was extricated and walked away with minor injuries, Pendergrass’ fifth and sixth vertebrae were shattered. At age 31, he would never walk again.
Weeks before the accident, Teddy delivered what would be his last televised performance before becoming paralyzed. He sang “Nine Times Out Of Ten,” the third and final single from his album “It’s Time for Love.”
After the 1982 accident, Teddy wouldn’t perform again until three years later, and it just so happened to be at the biggest concert of all time. On July 13, 1985, Pendergrass performed in his wheelchair before 100,000 people at Live Aid, the worldwide concert event held in his hometown of Philadelphia to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine disaster. It was broadcast around the world via one of the largest satellite link-ups of all time and seen by about 40% of the earth’s population. Ashford and Simpson introduced him.
Following Live Aid, Teddy returned to music and live performances. He scored his first No. 1 R&B single in nearly a decade when the song “Joy,” from his album of the same name, was released in 1988.
Teddy continued to record music and perform until announcing his retirement in 2006. He died of respiratory failure on January 13, 2010 at age 59.
Teddy Pendergrass’ burial site