Tammi Terrell was one of the rare gems in R&B history. Tammi was known for her duets with Marvin Gaye. The Two had numerous top charting hits like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing. Tammi was considered to have the whole package, the “IT” factor. When she sang it reached deep into your soul, she was branded to have sex appeal, soul and class. The guys enjoyed her breath taking beauty, while the ladies respected her style and class. Let’s pay a little homage and take a journey into the life of this rare diamond in a rough.
Tammi was born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery on April 29, 1945 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Her parents were Jennie Graham an actress and Thomas Montgomery a local politician and barbershop owner. Jennie and Thomas had three children, Thomasina was their first child. When Thomasina was 12 she decided to change her name to Tammi after watching “Tammy & the Bachelor.”
Montgomery’s career began when she signed with Sceptic/Wander Records. Here she recorded two singles and worked with The Shirelles. Not having too much success at Sceptic/Wander Records, Tammi decided to leave and sing back up for the James Brown Revue.
Try Me Records which was founded by James Brown produced Tammi’s first chart single. I Cried reached #99 on the Billboard Hot 100. Tammi started dating Brown, but the relationship turned out to be toxic causing Tammi to leave Try Me Records. She then signed with Checker Records, although she composed a song If I Would Marry You with the label, she decided to retire from the music business. She became discouraged with the music business for a brief moment, so she did the next best thing by enrolling into University of Pennsylvania, were she was a pre-med major. Jerry Butler heard of this great talent and approached Tammi with a contract to sing with him. Tammi was really into school and didn’t want to jeopardize her studies. Butler arranged the shows around Tammi’s schedule and she agreed to sing with him.
In April 1965 Berry Gordy heard Tammi singing at The Twenty Grand Club in Detroit. He was determined to have her on his label and by the end of April on her 20th birthday, Tammi signed with Motown Records. Berry changed Tammi Montgomery to Tammi Terrell because it screamed sex appeal to him. There was something special about Tammi because she was fortunate to makes songs that reached the Billboard charts. Her first top 40 R&B single was I Can’t Believe You Love Me. She had other hits like Come On and See Me. In 1966 she recorded All I DO (Is Think of You) with legendary Stevie Wonder.
During her rise to fame Tammi’s vocals and her beauty caught the eye of David Ruffin of the Temptations. The two began dating when she opened up for the Temptations on the Motortown Revue. The two would later break up due to abuse, lies and the lack of respect. In 1967 Motown hired Terrell to sing duet with Marvin Gaye. In the beginning the two would never be in the studio at the same time, but they managed to make a top charting hit. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough reached #19 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and # 3 on the R&B charts. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were all over the radio and television stations performing hits like Your Precious Love, If I Could Build My World Around You and If This World Were Mine. To many people’s surprise Tammi helped ease Marvin’s fear of performing live. When you look at their performance you can surely see comfort when he looks into her eyes.
As Tammi’s popularity rose, the migraines she suffered from since childhood began to incur devastating pain. She still found a way to perform even though she was in excruciating pain, but during one performance her body gave up and she collapsed into Marvin’s arms. When she went to the doctors she was diagnosed with a malignant tumor on the right side of her brain.
After she recovered from her first surgery she went back into the studio to record Your All I Need to Get By which reached #1 on the R&B Charts and #7 on the Pop Charts. She recorded Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing and this song also reached the #1 spot on the R&B charts. In the meantime Terrell needed to have more surgeries because the pain from the migraines was becoming unbearable. She was forced to retire from performing in 1969 due to her health condition. During this year Motown released Tammi’s only solo album Irresitable.
By the early 1970s Terrell was confined to a wheelchair, she was losing her sight, large amounts of hair and weight. Terrell was a true fighter until the end and always fought to live. She went in for her eighth surgery but fell into a coma, she later died from brain cancer on March 16, 1970. Marvin took Tammi’s death really hard and some say this is when his depression began.
Tammi was definitely a fallen angel, through her many ups and downs she always found a way to persevere. Her legacy lives on in today’s R&B and Hip Hop. Artist like Mos Def, Method Man, Fantasia, Amy Winehouse Notorious BIG have all sampled from Ms. Terrell. Tammi Terrell was a powerful force to be reckoned with. Rest in Paradise Young Beauty!!!
By: Yolanda English