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Mitchell (right) and Pendergrass (Associated Press)

Passing greatness

Music | Two giants of black music history died in January

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

With the recent deaths of Willie Mitchell and Teddy Pendergrass, Black History Month 2010 begins on a decidedly somber note.

Mitchell, who died on Jan. 5 at 81, was the architect of the sinuously insinuating sound unique to Hi Records, the Memphis soul-music label he helped put on the map in the 1970s by helming the soundboards for the likes of Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, and O.V. Wright.

Mitchell's greatest success, however, came from his teamwork with Al Green. Together Mitchell and Green scored a dozen top-40 hits, half of them reaching the top 10 and one-the iconic "Let's Stay Together"-reaching No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts. The two split when Green devoted himself to gospel music in the late 1970s, but, beginning with Green's He Is the Light in 1985, they periodically reunited, with I Can't Stop (2003) and Everything's OK (2005) in particular restoring both men to acclaim.

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Teddy Pendergrass, who was 59 when he died on Jan. 13, first achieved national prominence as the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, whose best-known song, the ballad "If You Don't Know Me by Now," proved an across-the-board smash in 1972.

It also proved an across-the-generations smash when covered by the Scottish blue-eyed-soul combo Simply Red in 1989. By that time, however, Pendergrass had spent more than a decade as a solo performer and seven years as a paraplegic, having severed his spinal cord in an automobile accident in 1982. He released the last of his seven post-accident studio albums in 1998 (This Christmas [I'd Rather Have Love]), with 2003's live From Teddy, with Love functioning more or less as a coda to his career.

In 2008 Legacy Recordings reissued three vintage Pendergrass albums as part of its "Total Soul Classics" series: Teddy Pendergrass, Life Is a Song Worth Singing, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' Wake Up Everybody. A bracing trilogy of pre-hip-hop R&B at its richest and most supple, they make an ideal place to begin re-experiencing Pendergrass before his status as a survivor symbol made hearing him unsentimentally all but impossible.

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