Tammi Terrell

Russ: This girl’s singing conveyed a heartache that lent itself to some of the most memorable love songs of the 1960s. As one-half of Motown’s most successful male-female recording duo with recording partner Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell became an unforgettable voice of that era.  Sadly, their classic duets came to an abrupt and tragic halt with her premature death.

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Thomasina Winifred Montgomery

/ Tammi Terrell

(April 29, 1945 – March 16, 1970)

Videos

Sadly, there are very few LIVE videos of Tammi Terrell; mainly just one song.

1967 Ain’t No Mountain High

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1967 Ain’t No Mountain High / The Johnny Carson Tonight Show Here is an interesting Youtube comment on this video about inappropriate musicians backing a slick Motown R&B act on the Tonight Show from Jim Stark:

This hip Motown music is way out of the lane of Carson’s Tonight Show Big Band and ideally, the Motown session musicians should have been allowed to accompany these singers on this performance to give the music a sound more similar to the recording that was being promoted in this appearance. Unfortunately, this is around 1967, and few young Black Artists got the benefit of appearing on Carson’s popular Tonight show during that time, so the idea that they would want to also bring along a handful of black Motown musicians to play the music was a non-starter with the Tonight Show people. In 1967 Tonight undoubtedly felt they were already venturing out of their primary lane bringing the singers on; they were not about to add a dozen musicians in tow as well. Also, most likely Gaye and Terrell were not invited to sit and chat with Carson after their performance like the main guests. These artists would not have had that stature with Carson at the time of this appearance. Today, bringing your musicians with you to a TV show performance would not be a problem, but in 1967 even Motown had to compromise and have its singer’s perform with this incongruous Tonight Show big band. Sure, the band gets an “E” for effort, but clearly, this performance would have been exponentially better with the right musicians behind the singers.

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Tammi Terrell LIVE AUDIO at the Roostertail, most likely in 1967 (she tells MC Scott Regan that she’s 21, and she died when she was 24 in 1970.)

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UNSUNG – A Documentary about the life of Tammi Terrell

Childhood

Tammi was born as Thomasina Montgomery in Philadelphia to Jennie (née Graham) and Thomas Montgomery. She was the elder of two siblings.

According to the Unsung documentary, her younger sister Ludie said that the parents had presumed the new baby would be a boy, so they  chose a name after the father. However, when it was discovered they had a girl, the parents settled on a female name Thomasina, nicknaming her “Tommie”.

youngTammi

In Ludie Montgomery’s  memoirs about her famous sister, she  writes that Tammi was a young victim of sexual molestation by three boys after leaving a neighborhood party at the age of eleven. The boys were arrested and convicted on a rape charge but the traumatic incident led to a change in Terrell’s behavior.

At the age of 12, she changed “Tommie”  to “Tammy” after seeing the film, Tammy and the Bachelor, and hearing its theme song.

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Tammi cutting her daddy’s hair

Starting around this time, Terrell began to have migraine headaches. While it was not thought to be of significance at the time, family members would later state that these headaches might have been related to her later diagnosis of brain cancer.

Tammi won a number of local talent contests, and  by the age of 13 she was regularly opening club dates for acts including Gary “U.S.” Bonds and Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles.

During her early career, Terrell dated many men both in and out of the music business. She had been romantically interested in singer Sam Cooke, though they never dated.

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Sam Cooke, Tammi Terrell and Betty Harris

 

Early recordings

Before turning 16, Terrell signed under the Wand subsidiary of Scepter Records after being discovered by Luther Dixon. Under the name, Tammy Montgomery, she recorded the ballad, “If You See Bill“.

During that time Tammy also recorded demos for The Shirelles. After another single, Terrell left the Wand label.

~ 1961 Tammi Montgomery demo / Sinner’s Devotion / Written by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, for the 1967 album The Early Show (also featuring Chuck Jackson) This track was cut five or six years earlier when she was in her mid teens and known as Tammi Montgomery, with the unmistakable Shirelles on backing vocals

In 1962 at age 17, Tammi was introduced to James Brown. She signed a contract with him and began singing backup for his Revue concert tours. The two engaged in a sexual relationship.

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In 1963, she recorded her first charting single on Brown’s Try Me label and it reached #99 on the Billboard Hot 100:  “I Cried“.

Unfortunately, the relationship with Brown became very abusive, and a horrific incident with him backstage after a show ended Terrell’s two-year affair with him.

After the Brown tenure ended, Terrell signed with Checker Records and, with producer Bert Berns, released a duet with Jimmy Radcliffe which Terrell co-wrote, “If I Would Marry You

Following this, Terrell announced semi-retirement from the music business and she enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania where she majored in pre-med, staying at the school for two years.

In the middle of this education, Terrell was asked by Jerry Butler to sing with him in a series of nightclub shows. After an arrangement was made by Butler to assure Terrell that she could continue her schooling, she began touring with him.

In April 1965, during a performance at Detroit’s Twenty Grand Club, Tammi was spotted by Motown CEO Berry Gordy, who promised to sign her to Motown. Terrell agreed and signed with the label on April 29, her 20th birthday.

Before releasing her first single with Motown’s Tamla subsidiary, Gordy suggested a name change. Figuring “Tammy Montgomery” was too long of a name to put on a single, Gordy changed it to “Tammi Terrell”.  He felt this name screamed “sex appeal”.

Her first Motown single: “I Can’t Believe You Love Me

I Can’t Believe You Love Me” became Terrell’s first R&B top forty single, followed almost immediately by “Come On and See Me“.

In 1965, during a tour in which she opened for The Temptations, Terrell met the band’s lead singer David Ruffin and embarked on a torrid romance.

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RuffinTerrell

The following year, Ruffin surprised Terrell with a marriage proposal. However, Terrell was devastated once she learned that Ruffin had a wife and three children and another girlfriend, also living in Detroit. This led to the couple having public fights.

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Candid Shot Of TAMMI TERRELL, 1966. An Interesting moment with pianist/arranger Johnny Allen and performance coach Maurice King

In 1966, Terrell recorded Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do (Is Think About You)

1966 / Two Can Have A Party

After the release of her first Tamla single Terrell joined the Motortown Revue .

Success with Marvin Gaye

In early 1967, Motown assigned Terrell to sing with Marvin Gaye, who had previously achieved duet success with other artists such as  Mary Wells and Kim Weston.  Gaye would become a close friend of Tammi’s, but it was a platonic relationship. Though it was often alleged their relationship grew into a romance, those close to the singers denied this claim.

During recording sessions, Gaye would recall later that he didn’t know how gifted Terrell was until they began singing together.

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For their first recording sessions,  Gaye and Terrell recorded separate versions of the Ashford & Simpson composition, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Motown remixed the vocals and edited out the background vocals, giving just Gaye and Terrell vocal dominance. The song became a crossover pop hit in the spring of 1967, reaching #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the R&B charts and making Terrell a star.

Their follow-up became an even bigger hit, reaching #5 on the pop chart and #2 on the R&B chart; a song whose ascent from verse to chorus is one of the most spine-tingling passages in all of recorded music: “Your Precious Love

At the end of that year, the duo scored another top ten single which peaked at #10 on the pop chart and #2 on the R&B chart: “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You

The song’s B-side, the Marvin Gaye composition “If This World Were Mine“, became a modest hit on both charts (#68 pop, #27 R&B). Gaye would later cite the song as “one of Tammi’s favorites”.

 

In the summer of 1967  Gaye and Terrell released their first duet album, United, with all four of the above songs included.

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Throughout that year, Gaye and Terrell began performing together and Terrell became a vocal and performance inspiration for the shy and laid-back Gaye, who hated live performing.
During a promotional campaign for their United album, Terrell’s migraines became worse, and during one show, she collapsed into Gaye’s arms onstage.

It was discovered she had a malignant brain tumor. Surgery was performed, and Terrell returned to the studio to record her second duet album with Gaye: You’re All I Need.

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The album You’re All I Need is perhaps the pinnacle of Gaye and Terrell’s recorded works. Popular singles Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing and You’re All I Need To Get By are still much-loved today, but there’s far more to the record than just those two tracks.

Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey features a fantastic vocal performance from Terrell, and her down-home girl delivery of the line, “Sugar, I can’t bear the thought of ever leaving you behind” is almost self-mocking, yet clearly full of fondness for her vocal partner.

Both You Ain’t Livin’ ‘Til You’re Lovin’ and When Love Comes Knocking At Your Heart are bursting at the seams with joyful optimism, and Come And See Me – also the title of a posthumous Tammi Terrell compilation – is simultaneously longing and triumphant.

Despite professional success, Terrell’s tumor grew and her health deteriorated. Then in 1969 doctors advised her to quit live performance. Terrell and Gaye would only release one more album as a duo, 1970’s Easy, but there’s controversy and mystery surrounding the recording of Tammi’s vocal tracks.

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Valerie Simpson, half of the Ashford and Simpson duo that had written so much of Gaye and Terrell’s material, was an accomplished vocalist in her own right, and there have been rumours ever since Easy’s release that it’s actually Simpson singing on the record, rather than Terrell.

These claims, endorsed by none other than Berry Gordy, were quickly rubbished by Marvin Gaye, and Valerie Simpson said that she recorded only ghost vocal tracks for guidance, and Terrell would sing over these parts on the days she felt well enough.

Whatever the real story, Easy is another fantastic album, and one which strays away from the love duet template somewhat and into social commentary, a direction which Gaye fully threw himself into with his mega-hit record, What’s Going On.

It was one of these state-of-the-world tracks, The Onion Song, that gave Gaye and Terrell their biggest UK hit, peaking at #9 in December 1969.

However, given subsequent events, it’s the consecutive tracks, Love Woke Me Up This Morning and This Poor Heart Of Mine, that have the biggest emotional impact.

Love Woke Me Up This Morning acts as both a summary and farewell to Gaye and Terrell’s relationship, sung looking back on past events, the pair sound in deep reflection as they sing, “Because of you happiness is mine / All my cloudy days are far behind.

em>This Poor Heart Of Mine is a punch to the gut; Terrell sounded both scared and defiant as she roared, “I don’t think how long I’m gonna last / So come back, baby – I’m sinking fast”. Gaye and Terrell’s repeated cries of “Situation desperate!” don’t even tell half the story of what was really going on.

In later years, songwriters Ashford & Simpson and Marvin Gaye said that Tammi’s  relationship with Marvin was almost sibling-like. Nevertheless they were reported as having opposite personalities; Gaye being shy and introvert, Terrell being streetwise and extrovert.

What they shared was their charisma as two artists performing together and their sense of humour. Gaye would later call Terrell “sweet” and “misunderstood” and stated that Terrell was his “perfect [musical] partner”.

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Tammi in 1968

While Terrell was finally being established as a star, the migraines and headaches that she suffered with as a child were becoming more constant. While she complained of pains, she insisted to people close to her that she was well enough to perform.

However, on October 14, 1967, while performing with Gaye at Hampden-Sydney College, just outside the town of Farmville, Virginia, Terrell fell and buckled onstage; Gaye quickly responded by grabbing her by the arms and helping her offstage.

Cancer diagnosis

Shortly after returning from Virginia, doctors diagnosed a malignant tumor on the right side of her brain.

After recovering from her first operation, Terrell returned to Hitsville studios in Detroit and recorded “You’re All I Need to Get By“.

Both that song and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” reached #1 on the R&B charts.

Motown issued Terrell’s first and only solo album, Irresistible, in early 1969.

irresistible

Terrell was too ill to promote the recordings. There was no new repertoire on the album: all tracks had been recorded earlier and had subsequently been shelved for some time.

Late in 1969, Terrell made her final public appearance at the Apollo Theater where Marvin Gaye was headlining the bill. As soon as Terrell was spotted by Gaye, he rushed to her side and the duo began singing “You’re All I Need to Get By” together. They were given a huge standing ovation by the public.

At the time of her death she was engaged to be married to Ernest Garrett, a doctor at Terrell’s hospital but not her personal doctor.

Terrell’s mother criticized Motown for not helping with Terrell’s illness and accused the label of covering up the singer’s condition and releasing albums of Terrell’s work without her consent.

Gaye had also contended that he felt Motown was taking advantage of Terrell’s illness and refused to promote the Easy album despite Motown telling him it would cover Terrell’s health expenses.

Gaye never fully got over Terrell’s death, according to several biographers who have stated that Terrell’s death led Gaye to depression and drug abuse. In addition, Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On, an introspective, low-key work which dealt with mature themes released in 1971, was in part a reaction to Terrell’s death

Despite having enjoyed commercial and critical success, Tammi Terrell’s involvement in the success of Motown Records often seems downplayed or even forgotten. However, her work, in particular those three duet albums with Marvin Gaye, are more than enough evidence that her legacy deserves to endure.

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4 responses to “Tammi Terrell

  1. Outstanding posting. I have learned so much about the music and the artists that I love, from your postings. Thanks for doing this.

  2. Very interesting bio.

  3. Great post! Thanks for reminding us of what a powerful talent Terrell was, taken tragically much to soon.

  4. Thank you for sharing !!! This bio was very informative and unbiased. I enjoyed reading as well as listening to the tracks.

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