The tragic life of Tammi Terrell

Tammi Terrell was one of Motown’s brightest stars of the 1960s. Her duets with Marvin Gaye became instant soul classics, and her tragic death from brain cancer just shy of her 25th birthday helped to cement her status as a musical icon.

Tammi Terrell. Photo courtesy of Universal Music.

By Mike Greenblatt

Tammi Terrell was one of Motown’s brightest stars of the 1960s. Her duets with Marvin Gaye became instant soul classics, and her tragic death from brain cancer just shy of her 25th birthday helped to cement her status as a musical icon.

She was born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery on April 29, 1945, in Philadelphia. Her mother was an unsuccessful actress; her father owned a popular barber shop. She experienced severe migraine headaches as a child — an unfortunate harbinger of things to come.

Terrell was discovered at age 15 by singer-songwriter-producer Luther Dixon [1931-2009]. She recorded singles under the name Tammy Montgomery for the Scepter/Want, Checker and Try Me labels, recorded demos for The Shirelles and went on the road as a background singer in James Brown’s touring band. When the singles went nowhere, Terrell decided to go to college, where she majored in pre-med.

While still in school, Terrell went on tour with soul crooner Jerry Butler. It was during one of those dates at Detroit’s storied 20 Grand night club that Motown label founder Berry Gordy saw her sing. Gifted with a husky drawl and easy delivery, Terrell accommodated almost any melody and slid just as comfortably into singing harmony, neither of which was lost on Gordy, who signed her to the Motown label in 1965.

Gordy renamed her Tammi Terrell — he felt the name oozed sex appeal — and watched her career take off. Everyone who heard or met her fell in love. On a Motown revue tour with The Temptations, lead singer David Ruffin fell head over heels, and the pair became quite the item. In 1966, she beautifully interpreted Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do Is Think About You” and The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart Of Mine.” Both cemented her reputation nationally as a major league up and comer. But her headaches began to increase in intensity.

In 1967, Terrell teamed up with label mate Marvin Gaye to record Ashford & Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”The song was a major hit, reaching No. 19 on the pop charts and No. 3 on the soul charts. Their follow-up, “Your Precious Love,” another Ashford & Simpson composition, hit No. 5 pop and No. 2 soul.

More hits followed. Gaye and Terrell supported the release of their debut duet album “United” by going on the road together. And audiences across the country fell in love with the both of them.

On Oct. 14, 1967, Terrell fainted onstage at Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College when the pain from a migraine became too much to bear. Gaye caught her in his arms and carried her to her dressing room. She was soon diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, but after she underwent the first of several brain surgeries, Terrell recorded the classics “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” both of which reached No. 1 on the soul charts. By 1969, though, Terrell had to quit the road. “Irresistible,” her only solo album, came out that year, but she was too sick to support it with a tour. Still, two more duet albums with Gaye kept her name in the press and their singles on the charts. Terrell’s last show was in 1969 at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York City.

By 1970, Terrell had lost her eyesight and her hair. She was confined to a wheelchair and weighed just 93 pounds. Following her eighth brain surgery, Terrell slipped into a coma and died on March 16, 1970. She was 24.

Terrell was as boisterous and filled with life offstage as she was on. Her relationship with Marvin Gaye was close, but platonic. It is said that Gaye never got over her death; he soon began a downward spiral courtesy of depression and drug abuse.

Her relationship with James Brown, however, was anything but platonic. It was highly sexual and violently abusive, and she often had to hide a black eye in public. She also reportedly had love affairs with Sam Cooke and David Ruffin. At the time of her death, she was engaged to be married to Dr. Ernest Garrett.

If you’re looking for a Terrell fix, the 2010 release of “Come On And See Me: The Complete Solo Collection” (Hip-O Select) contains almost everything Terrell ever recorded, as well as 13 rare live minutes.

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