Tammi Terrell: The Tragic Story Of Motown's Forgotten Star

Despite having enjoyed commercial and critical success, Tammi Terrell's involvement in the story of Motown is often downplayed, but her legacy deserves to endure, 44 years after her troubled and tragic life came to its end....
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Despite having enjoyed commercial and critical success, Tammi Terrell's involvement in the story of Motown is often downplayed, but her legacy deserves to endure, 44 years after her troubled and tragic life came to its end....

There’s little the music press likes more than a dead rock star to mythologise. Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse is the mantra – the slew of recent articles around the twentieth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s passing is testament to that. However, the death itself has to fit the narrative; drugs, suicide or tragic accident all work fine, but if it’s the kind of untimely disease that could affect us mere mortals, that just won’t do at all, will it?

Thomasina Montgomery, who would go on to be better known by the name Tammi Terrell, was born in Philadelphia during the closing months of World War II. A promising singer throughout her childhood, she managed to land her first record deal, with a subsidiary of Scepter Records, at the age of just fifteen. As an indicator of her precociousness, she semi-retired from the music industry to study pre-med at the University of Philadelphia. During 1965, she was spotted by famous Motown supremo, Berry Gordy, who signed her to his label on her twentieth birthday. In 1967, the most fruitful period of Terrell’s career began, when Marvin Gaye was hired to sing duets with her. The pair released three fantastic albums of love songs at the end of the 1960s, all sprinkled with that magical Motown hit-making dust, which seemed in limitless supply during that time. Terrell should have been well on the way to being one of music’s biggest stars.

It wasn’t to be. Tammi Terrell died of brain cancer on 16th March 1970. She was 24 years old.

Given Marvin Gaye’s stellar career (also cut tragically short by an untimely death), Terrell’s role in music history is often unfairly relegated to the woman who sang duets with Marvin, the famous one. However, they were clearly equals in terms of talent and vocal ability during their recording period together, and her lesser-known solo recordings showcase a real star who was never given the chance to fulfil her potential.

Terrell suffered from severe migraines from the age of twelve, and there has been speculation that these were linked to the cancer that ultimately killed her. She entered the music industry at a young age, and had had an ill-fated two year relationship with James Brown before she was out of her teens. Terrell broke it off with Brown following abusive behaviour, and started seeing David Ruffin, then a lead vocalist with the classic line-up of The Temptations. However, that relationship was also fraught with problems. Ruffin proposed to Terrell in 1966 despite already being married, and there were reports that he attacked her with a hammer, a machete and a motorcycle helmet. The couple split in 1967, the year Terrell began recording with Gaye.

Despite rumours to the contrary, there’s nothing to suggest Gaye and Terrell’s relationship was anything but platonic, and to listen to their duets is to hear the sound of an inseparable couple, truly devoted to one another. Probably because of the times, there’s very little sexual element to their songs, just talk of love, partnership and adoration. Gaye and Terrell released their first album for Motown, United, in 1967. It features the original recorded version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, a track by legendary husband-and-wife songwriting team, Ashford and Simpson. Dusty Springfield became aware of the track before Ashford and Simpson had signed a deal with Berry Gordy, but the couple refused to let Springfield record it, gambling – successfully – on it being their way into Motown. United also features the hits If I Could Build My Whole World Around You, If This World Were Mine and the heavenly Your Precious Love, whose ascent from verse to chorus is one of the most spine-tingling passages in all of recorded music.

During the promotional campaign for United, Terrell’s migraines became worse, and during one show, she collapsed into Gaye’s arms onstage. It was discovered she had a malignant brain tumour, surgery was performed, and Terrell returned to the studio to record her second album with Gaye: You’re All I Need.

You’re All I Need is perhaps the pinnacle of Gaye and Terrell’s recorded oeuvre. 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 tumour grew and her health deteriorated, and in 1969 she was forced to quit live performance on medical advice. Terrell and Gaye would only release one more album as a duo, 1970’s Easy, but there’s controversy and mystery surrounding the vocal recordings.

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. Valerie Simpson said that she recorded vocals on the track 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 number 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.” This Poor Heart Of Mine is a punch to the gut; Terrell sound both scared and defiant as she roars, “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.

By the time Terrell’s illness had fully taken hold, she was blind, confined to a wheelchair, and suffering from hair loss. In early 1970, she had her eighth operation, and fell into a coma where she would remain until her death, six weeks later. Terrell’s family, disgusted at the way Motown had treated her in the final stages of her life, refused to let anybody associated with the label attend the funeral except Gaye, who delivered a eulogy for his dear friend.

Gaye was also furious with Motown about the way they’d exploited Terrell, and took her death badly. His relationship with the label was irreparably damaged, and his fury led to him demanding creative control for his next album, rather than the strict formula Berry Gordy insisted all his acts adhere to. The result was What’s Going On, which sold more than any Motown album had before that point. Continuing Gaye’s bad blood with the Gordy family, in 1977 he divorced Berry’s sister, Anna, to whom he had been married for fourteen years. Part of the settlement involved Anna Gordy Gaye being entitled to a portion of the royalties from his next album, so Marvin wrote Here, My Dear, a vicious and bitter record dealing with the collapse of the marriage from his point of view.

Despite having enjoyed commercial and critical success, Terrell involvement in the success of Motown Records often seems downplayed or even forgotten. However, her work, in particular those three albums with Marvin Gaye, are more than enough evidence that her legacy deserves to endure, 44 years after her troubled and tragic life came to its end, far too soon.

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