March 16, 1970 – Tammi Terrell was born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery on April 29, 1945. was an American recording artist, best known as a star singer for Motown Records during the 1960s, most notably for a series of duets with singer Marvin Gaye.
Before turning 16, Terrell signed under the Wand subsidiary of Scepter Records after being discovered by Luther Dixon, recording the ballad, “If You See Bill”, under the name Tammy Montgomery and doing demos for The Shirelles. After another single, Terrell left the label and, after being introduced to James Brown, signed a contract with him and began singing backup for his Revue concert tours. In 1963, she recorded the song “I Cried”. Released on Brown’s Try Me Records, it became her first charting single, reaching No. 99 on the Billboard Hot 100.
After this tenure ended, Terrell signed with Checker Records and released the Bert Berns produced duet, “If I Would Marry You” with Jimmy Radcliffe, which Terrell co-composed. Following this relative failure, Terrell announced a semi-retirement from the music business and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania where she majored in pre-med, staying at the school for two years. In the middle of this, Terrell was asked by Jerry Butler to sing with him in a series of shows in nightclubs. After an arrangement was made by Butler to assure Terrell that she could continue her schooling, she began touring with Butler.
In April 1965, during a performance at the Twenty Grand Club in Detroit, she 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, “I Can’t Believe You Love Me”, 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”. “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 1966, Terrell recorded two future classics, Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do (Is Think About You)” and The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)”. Terrell joined the Motortown Revue after the release of her first single. 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.
In early 1967, Motown hired Terrell to sing duets with Marvin Gaye, who had achieved duet success with Mary Wells and Kim Weston as well as having recorded duets with Oma Heard. During recording sessions, Gaye would recall later that he did not know how gifted Terrell was until they began singing together.
At first the duets were recorded separately. For sessions of their first recording, the Ashford & Simpson composition, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, both Gaye and Terrell recorded separate versions. 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 No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 3 on the R&B charts and making Terrell a star. Their follow-up, “Your Precious Love”, became an even bigger hit, reaching No. 5 on the pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart. At the end of the year, the duo scored another top ten single with “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, which peaked at No. 10 on the pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart. The song’s B-side, the Marvin Gaye composition “If This World Were Mine”, became a modest hit. Gaye would later cite the song as “one of Tammi’s favorites”. All four songs were included on Gaye and Terrell’s first duet album, United, released in the late summer of 1967.
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. The duo also performed together on television shows to their hits.
With Gaye, Terrell scored seven Top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By“.
While Terrell was finally being established as a star, the migraines and headaches she had suffered from childhood 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 onstage; Gaye quickly responded by grabbing her by the arms and helping her offstage. Shortly after returning from Virginia, doctors diagnosed a malignant tumor on the right side of her brain.
After recovering from her first surgery, 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 No. 1 on the R&B charts. Despite Terrell’s optimism, her tumor worsened requiring more surgeries. By 1969, Terrell had retired from live performances as she had been ordered by doctors not to perform due to her tumors. Motown issued Terrell’s first and only solo album, Irresistible, in early 1969. 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.
Both Marvin Gaye and Valerie Simpson gave different stories on how the production of Terrell’s and Gaye’s third album together, Easy, went about. According to reports, Terrell had gotten so ill from her operations that she could not record, and Motown opted to have Valerie Simpson sub in for Terrell, a report that was repeated in the book Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On and the Last Days of the Motown Sound. Gaye would later say the move was “another moneymaking scheme on BG’s part”. Valerie Simpson, on the other hand, stated that the ailing Terrell was brought into the studio when she was strong enough to record over Simpson’s guide vocals, insisting Terrell had sung on the album. Easy produced the singles “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By”, “What You Gave Me”, “California Soul” and the UK top ten hit, “The Onion Song”.
Late in 1969, Terrell made her final public appearance at the Apollo Theater where Marvin Gaye was performing. 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 an ovation by the public.
She had eight unsuccessful brain surgeries before succumbing to the illness on March 16, 1970 at the age of 24.