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Though she’d become famous and part of the soul music pantheon thanks to her duets with Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell was signed to Motown as a solo act on her 20th birthday in 1965. Even though she was young, she had lived multiple lives in the recording industry by then; first as a 15-year-old singing demos for the Shirelles and recording one-off singles, then as a backing member of James Brown’s soul revue. When her relationship with Brown turned violent, Terrell — who was still going by Tammy Montgomery — quit singing altogether and went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied pre-med. A call from Philly soul legend Jerry Butler to go on the road singing with him was too hard to pass up, so with the understanding that she’d be able to finish school, Terrell took off on a U.S. tour with Butler. On the Detroit stop, she was seen by Berry Gordy, who signed her more or less on the spot.
Gordy had Terrell cut her first single, “I Can’t Believe You Love Me,” shortly thereafter. A last minute decision that “Montgomery” was too long of a last name for a 7-inch single led to Gordy giving Terrell her new stage name, a name allegedly chosen at random, but more likely chosen after boxer Ernie Terrell, who had just become famous for becoming the heavyweight champion when Muhammad Ali had to drop his title for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
Terrell’s own singles didn’t make a huge dent in the charts, but not for lack of trying. In early 1967, Gordy paired Terrell up with Marvin Gaye, who had had a string of hits with duets with Mary Wells and Kim Weston, two talented singers who had left Motown. The first duet Marvin and Tammi cut together was “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a song they recorded separately and which was Frankensteined in the studio. That song would change the arc of Tammi’s career forever. Since you’re getting Tammi’s lone solo LP, Irresistible, in the box set, here’s where to go next to understand Tammi Terrell’s career, and other records to grab to fill out your Tammi collection.
This early single came out when Tammi still went by Tammy Montgomery, and was released when she was working as part of James Brown’s soul revue. She was but a teenager when she recorded this heartfelt ballad, but you can appreciate the emotional depth of her voice, despite her young age. She could convey loss and heartbreak with a single inflection of her voice.
When the Ashford & Simpson-penned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” lit up the radio — it would hit the top 20 on Billboard — Gordy had Gaye and Terrell head to the studio to record United, a duets LP that would launch multiple hit singles, and make both Terrell and Gaye into stars of late-’60s Motown. Gaye would remember later that he didn’t appreciate how great Terrell’s voice was until they recorded together; their relationship as artistic partners would impact him in the years to come. Songs like “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” and “Two Can Have a Party” played off of the vocal interplay that came so naturally to Gaye and Terrell in the studio. It would be the last duets album they’d actively promote, however, as tragedy struck Terrell during the promotional tours for the album.
Terrell and Gaye were touring behind United pretty heavily when tragedy struck: Terrell, who’d had migraines for as long as anyone could remember, collapsed onstage while performing with Gaye at Hampden-Sydney College. After tests, it was determined she had a brain tumor. Terrell went back to Detroit to have surgery and a battery of tests, and in between medical treatments and when she was well enough to record, she worked on You’re All I Need, the most superlative of her duets albums with Gaye. The title track and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” became No. 1 smashes, but there are deep cuts here that are as sensational as the smashes, like “Give In, You Just Can’t Win” and “Memory Chest.” This album best captured Terrell and Gaye as rising stars, making duets that sounded like the real thing: love between a couple that’s had its shares of ups and downs. Tammi’s voice was one you could always believe in.
The final album released while Terrell was alive, Easy was recorded in fits and starts, with Terrell often having to sing over reference tracks from Valerie Simpson. Tammi’s voice isn’t as strong as on her solo LP and the two previous duets albums with Gaye, but she sings with her old vigor and spark on cuts like “This Poor Heart Of Mine” and “Baby I Need Your Loving.” Terrell would lose her battle with cancer in 1970, a month shy of her 25th birthday. Gaye took Tammi’s death hard; he channeled his sadness into his 1971 masterpiece, What’s Going On. Her recorded career amounted to Irresistible, three duets LPs with Gaye, another inessential earlier LP with Chuck Jackson released to capitalize on her Motown signing, and a handful of loose singles. Though her career was short, Tammi Terrell left a lasting impact on the history of soul music, and the history of Motown.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.