There is good news and bad news coming out of Chicago for gay fans of vintage R&B and disco music—and that definitely includes yours truly. The god news is that Black Ensemble Theater has just debuted "I Am Who I Am: The Story of Teddy Pendergrass," a new musical on the life of the legendary former lead singer of the iconic Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes who shot to superstardom as a solo artist. Pendergrass' live shows "were renowned for their theatrical sexuality" and at the height of career, he was paralyzed in a car accident in the early 1980s. The passenger, Tenika Watson, was relatively unhurt.
Tenika Watson "turned out to be a transsexual nightcb performer whose original name was John Watson" and "Pendergrass would only say that Watson was a casual acquaintance whom he was giving a ride home." (Hello, Eddie Murphy!) Pendergrass has never discussed the circumstances of the accident and snaps at Gregg Shapiro, a gay journalist with the LGBT weekly The Chicago Free Press:.
GS: Throughout your career, you have had songs that were associated with the disco scene, such as the solo track "If You Know Like I Know," and "Bad Luck," "The Love I Lost" and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Because of having success in the realm, I wondered if you were aware of a following in the gay community throughout your career.
TP: No. My music appeals to everybody. No, I don’t keep a running list of who listens and who doesn’t. That’s not my job.
It's unfortunate that Pendergrass cannot mention the impact of gay producers and/or fans on his career, or, even the larger influence of gays in R&B and disco. It's also unfortunate that he will not discuss certain "transsexual nightclub performers", but, the title of the musical speaks for itself. "I Am Who I Am" is one of the lead numbers from La Cage aux Folles which was a musical about—you guessed it—transsexual nightclub performers. The song was later remade by Gloria Gaynor into the gay anthem "I Am What I Am."