Soul Singer (1945-1970)
The straight facts are these. She was born Thomasina Montgomery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the 29th April 1945. At the age of 11 she won a talent competition and went on to develop a career performing in local venues, until she came to the attention of the New York based Scepter Records. The next year her first single If you see Bill appeared on the Scepter label, under the name Tammy Montgomery, a follow up, Voice of experience, appeared on the Wand label in 1962. Neither made much of a commercial impact.
In 1963 she joined the James Brown Revue, and recorded a single for the Try Me label, which failed to chart. It is rumoured that she and Mr Brown were an item and that it was her family's objections to the relationship that caused her to leave after only a year. She then signed for the Chess label and recorded one single that once again failed to sell.
The turning point in her career was in 1965, when performing at the Twenty Grand club in Detroit. She was heard singing by one Berry Gordy who offered her a contract with his Motown record company. It was around this time that she dropped the Montgomery and adopted Tammi Terrell as a stage name (1). Motown released a number of singles under the Tammi Terrell name; some of which hit the lower reaches of the R&B charts but none of which really set the world alight.
Her opportunity came when Kim Weston left for MGM. Motown had seen a great deal of commercial success partnering Marvin Gaye with first Mary Wells and then Kim Weston. Without Kim Weston, Motown needed a new singing partner for Marvin Gaye. So they put Marvin together with Tammi and the Fuqua/Bristol production team. There was an immediate chemistry between Tammi and Marvin, evident on songs such as Ain't no mountain high enough and Your precious love. (Material provided by the then new Nickolas Ashford/Valerie Simpson writing partnership.) All in all the recordings for the United album produced 3 US top 20 hits.
However for months Tammi had been complaining of severe headaches. Then during a concert at the Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia she collapsed on stage. Subsequent hospital tests revealed a brain tumour. Throughout 1968 and 1969 her health deteriorated, and she found it increasingly difficult to work. Motown was reduced to over dubbing Marvin's vocals onto previously recorded Tammi tracks for half of the second album. By 1969 and the recordings for Easy they simply substituted Valerie Simpson, but continued to release the material under Tammi Terrell's name (2). Tammi endured a number of operations but all to no avail. She died on March 16th 1970, and was buried at Mount Lawn Cemetery, Philadelphia. She was only 24.
The unstraight facts are these. It has been alleged that she was an alcoholic before Motown's Artist Development stepped in and straightened her out. In addition, the various men with whom she was linked during her short life, such as James Brown, Temptations member David Ruffin, Marvin Gaye, or an un-named Motown staffer have been accused of physically abusing her, even to the extent that it was this physical abuse that either caused and/or exacerbated her subsequent fatal illness. No one, it seems, really knows the truth behind these allegations, or how much was exaggeration or simple sensationalism. In any event, many of the people involved have themselves died; the real truth about her private life may never be known.
In the last analysis, the only thing that really matters was that she could sing like a dream, with one of those breathy little girl lost voices that can cut straight through to your heart. In a short career, she still managed to make her mark on Soul music. Who knows what she might have achieved had tragedy not struck.
Album discography (all US Motown)
With Marvin Gaye
The only currently available (8/2001) US release is the Best of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. In the UK however the Spectrum label offers both The Essential Collection (basically the Irressistable album with extra tracks) as well as a 2-on-1 re-release of United and You're all I need.
(1) There is apparently no truth to the tale that Tammi married a boxer named Ernie Terrell. Terrell was simply a stage name, nothing more.
(2) Marvin Gaye was, of course devasted by Tammi's collapse and subsequent illness. (It took him over three years to build up the courage to perform in public again.) He was, it seems, unhappy about the subterfuge involved in presenting Valerie Simpson recording as Tammi Terrell's, but reluctantly agreed as Tammi would continue to receive the royalties for the recordings.