I know it is a high-minded suggestion, considering that while he was alive, Pendergrass did way more than engineer the musical career that certified him a pop/soul legend; he was a father and a grandfather who, after the infamous 1982 crash of his Rolls Royce in Philadelphia that left him paralyzed from the waist down at the height of his vocation, managed to navigate from his wheel chair a life, full and fruitful. Comparatively speaking, “Love TKO” is but a fleeting footnote.
But as far as I’m concerned, “Love TKO” is one of the best things he ever recorded. Written by Cecil and Linda Womack (younger brother and sister-in-law of singer/songwriter Bobby) and Eddie Gip Noble, “Love TKO” is the woeful narrative of a man who just can’t seem to win the game of love.
The abbreviation “TKO” in its title would seem to make light of the subject matter. Short for Technical Knock Out, it is the boxing term for when a referee declares an opponent the winner, based on the challenger’s inability to continue the fight. However, this song is a serious strain about the business of emotional loss and frustration.
Musically, “TKO” is a sparse and lonely mid tempo track, driven by an ominous bass line that stalks like a pained panther. As productions go, it’s all pretty understated–the kind of deceptive simplicity that has
hoodwinked any number of artists covering the tune into believing they can harness the soulful intensity of the original. But like Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love,” another classic testimony of desperation, instrumentally the secret to “Love TKO” lies in its bold yet plaintive, grooving pocket.
And then there’s Pendergrass himself. Known for manhandling a lyric and melody, at the onset of “Love TKO,” Teddy is uncharacteristically introspective, sounding, in fact, a bit bewildered and then later, downright pitiful as he reflects on having his ass handed to him yet again by love.
Finally, in an anguished ad-lib delivered against a brooding, swaying gospel-tinged refrain (“Think I better let it go/Looks like another Love TKO”), Pendergrass wearily tells it like it ’tis: “Tired of gettin’ beat up by love.”
I know, brother. I know.
“Love TKO” does exactly what a song about love lost is supposed to–render like-minded camaraderie to a bleeding heart. That its forlorn lyric offers no tourniquet, no everything-is-going-to-be-all-right to stop the hemorrhage, is both “TKO”’s strength and attraction: occasionally, there is a certain solace found in simply wallowing in ones pain with no immediate regard for feeling better.
And “Love TKO”’s durable melancholy is transferable. Matters not your misery. Lost your job? Something in your world going wrong–again? The mighty “Love TKO” makes a great soundtrack for most pity parties.
In fact, the song could have been recorded in honor of Pendergrass’ own life-changing event. More than a technical knockout, that car crash was potentially a death blow, both figuratively and literally. Few expected Pendergrass to recover. But he did, not only resuming his recording career (his duet partner during the tender “Hold Me,” from his 1984 album, “Love Language,” was a then unknown Whitney Houston), but performing as well. In 1996, in his wheelchair, he starred alongside Stephanie Mills in the touring production of the gospel musical, “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.”
Before the accident, the tall, dark and ruggedly handsome Pendergrass was one of the biggest stars of producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records stable, which included the O’Jays, Billy Paul, The Three Degrees, Patti LaBelle and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Remarkably, Pendergrass started out as that vocal group’s drummer before being promoted to lead singer of such ’70s Bluenotes hits as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “The Love I Lost,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Wake Up Everybody.”
Going solo in 1977, Pendergrass epitomized the soulful, macho, chest-beating albeit dapper Love Man, an image fortified by hit singles like “Close The Door” (as in the bedroom door; as in, so goes the lyric, “Let me give you what you’ve been waiting for”) and “Turn Off The Lights” (as in, you know, the bedroom lights).
So popular was Pendergrass’ Sex God persona that he performed “Ladies Only” concerts, sold out by grown, intelligent, well-thinking women, most of them black, who, once the lights went down and Pendergrass hit the stage, proceeded to lose their minds. In Los Angeles, a maintenance man cleaning up a venue after one such show told me he could have opened a lingerie shop with all the tossed panties left behind.
Today, it may be difficult for many to recall the impact of Pendergrass’ contribution to popular soul. However, with Teddy’s death on January 13 from complications after colon cancer surgery, a certain era of influential music–its inimitable style, spirit and passion–took yet another one on the chin. Only, these days, the losses are feeling like more than mere TKOs. Increasingly, they’re feeling like the sad and empty end of something more.