Who Was Tammi Terrell? [S01E02]
In this episode, we focus on the young 60’s artist Tammi Terrell. Motown, the dynamic duo and her troubled love life.
Thomasina Winifred (Tammi Terrell) Montgomery was born on April 29th, 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a young talented artist who rose quickly to the stage, had a mature poise and voice for her age, toured all over the country with close friend Marvin Gaye. And at just 20 years of age, became one of the most memorable voices of 1960s Motown, Pop and R&B. Tammi Terrell’s life took a fatal turn when only one month shy of her 25th birthday, she passed away from brain cancer.
Terrell’s professional music career began at the tender age of 13, when she was already opening for headliners like Patti LaBelle. 14-year-old Tammy was discovered and signed by producer Luther Dixton in 1960 and released her first single, under the name Tammy Montgomery. The song was called, “If You See Bill."
Tammy used to perform all over the place. One lucky live performance granted her the ear of The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, who signed her to his label Try Me Records in 1963. She toured with him on his Live Revue Tour in 1963 as a background singer. It was at this time, she recorded the song "I Cried" and it became her first charting single on the Billboards Hot 100.
During her time on tour with him, Brown and Terrell had a romantic relationship with each other. The media reported several instances of physical abuse from James when their fights would go out of hand. Tammy endured the relationship, and their two-year affair finished at the end of the tour.
In 1965, Tammy Terrell was romantically involved with another well known singer, then-Temptations front singer, David Ruffin. Various accusations of domestic abused by the husband and father of three which were denied by the family. However Terrell confirmed she had been hit on the side of her face by Ruffin’s motorcycle helmet. Their affair ended shortly after in 1967.
Tammy signed with another record label and co-wrote a duet Jimmy Radcliffe, but the song did not do as well as she had hoped.
The now 18 year-old Tammy announced a semi-retirement from music to pursue Pre-Med at the University of Pennsylvania. She continued to sing in nightclubs and toured with Jerry Butler. Tammy was spotted by Motown CEO Berry Gordy at one of these live performances and he signed her to Motown Records.
It was Gordy that convinced her to shorten her name to give it more appeal, and since then, she’s been known as Tammi Terrell, taken after her romantic partner and rumored husband for a time, Heavyweight Boxer Ernie Terrell. It was also at Motown she met 28 year old Marvin Gaye. Up until this moment, Marvin hadn’t known of her, but after hearing the 20-year-old sing, they immediately became partners in crime.
She replaced his previous duet partner, and the two toured all over the country singing their chart topping hits such as “Aint No Mountain Higher” and “My Precious Love.” The duo even impressed the R&B listeners and their song “Aint Nothing Like the Real Thing” dominated the R&B charts. The two had this type of chemistry that was indescribable.
Though the two were much like opposites; where Marvin was reserved and quiet, Tammi was a real ball of fire. They brought out the best in each other, on stage and in their private lives. It was rumoured that the two were romantically involved at one point however the two denied this. They had a very platonic relationship, he was the big brother she never had.
It was their lyrics, their chemistry and romantic aura the two created in their songs that perpetuated persistent rumours that the two were lovers. Their partnership was undeniably creatively and professionally successful but the dynamic duo was doomed from the start.
After years of suffering from migraines, Tammi Terrell collapsed into Marvin Gaye’s arms during a 1967 concert. Doctors had first dismissed the event as exhaustion but later discovered a malignant tumor in the right side of her brain.
Over the next few years, Tammi underwent at least 8 operations but her condition continued to worsen. Her condition prevented her from preforming on stage with Gaye, but Terrell continued to record with him. Songs including “Good Loving Ain't Easy to Come By”, "What You Gave Me” both released in 1969, and their biggest UK hit “The Onion Song”.
By 1970, Terrell was confined to wheel chair suffering from blindness and the loss of her hair. After her 8th and final operation on January 25th of that year, she fell into a coma.
On March 16, 1970, Tammi Terrell died in Philadelphia only a month shy of her 25th birthday.
After her death, speculations of what, or who killed Tammi rose. Fingers were pointed at ex-Temptation singer David Ruffin, claiming that her brain disorders was a result of physical abuse while the two were an item.
Marvin Gaye never truly got over Tammi’s death and passing only added fuel to an existing amber of depression and drug abuse for Marvin. One that had been festering since her initial diagnosis in 1967.
Had Tammi lived, she would have continued to be force to reckoned with. From such a young age, her voice was distinct, raspy, soulful, emotional and mature. She would have contested singers like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Diana Ross.
The uncanny resemblance of Empire's Cookie Lyon, played by actress Taraji P. Henson has many fans advocating for a movie adaptation of the late Motown singer. However, whether or not directors would move forward and take on the story has yet to be decided.
In Marvin’s biography, Divided Soul, Gaye wrote…