*I believe God put Teddy Pendergrass here to sing  “Love TKO.” 

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.

Steven Ivory’s book, FOOL IN LOVE (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) is available at Amazon.com (www.Amazon.com).  Respond to him via [email protected]