It’s Tammi Terrell’s birthday today. I’ve had a crush on her from the moment I laid eyes on her, mainly because of her beautiful eyes. Her beauty is only surpassed by her immense vocal talent. She sang for numerous record labels, and found fame singing duets with Marvin Gaye for Motown. She toured and had a relationship with James Brown, whose physical abuse finally made her leave him. She also had a relationship with Temptations lead vocalist David Ruffin, who also physically abused her. She influenced countless female vocalists over the years.
She did all of that…and died before she reached the age of 25.
Tammi was born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery inPhiladelphiaon April 29, 1945. It seems that her dad was so convinced that he and his wife were going to have a boy that he already had the name “Thomas” picked out. Throughout her childhood, her friends and family called her “Tommie.” At age 11, she was raped by three neighborhood boys while coming home from a local get-together. She became a rebellious teen, and around age 15 she took the name “Tammy” from the hit movie “Tammy and the Bachelor” that was popular at the time. It was around this time that she started complaining of migraines and headaches, but her family did not consider it a major issue, and the headaches went untreated.
She had started singing professionally by age 13, and by age 15 she signed with Scepter Records, releasing the single “If You See Bill” under the name Tammy Montgomery. She toured with many Philadelphia artists, including Chubby Checker and Patti LaBelle, as well as Chicago’s Gene Chandler. But by 1962, the 17 year old caught the ear (and the eye) of soul master James Brown, who added her to his travelling revue. After a two-year relationship, Tammy and James had a violent incident backstage that caused her to return to Philadelphia, where she retired from singing long enough to start studying pre-med at the University of Pennsylvania.
By 1965, she was touring again, this time with Chicago’s Jerry Butler. While performing in Detroit, Motown founder Berry Gordy heard Tammy and convinced her to sign with his Motown label. She signed a contract on April 29, 1965, her 20th birthday. Gordy thought that Tammy Montgomery was too long, so he gave her the name Tammi Terrell.
After several solo recordings that achieved modest success, Motown teamed her with Marvin Gaye in 1967. When they recorded their first duet, they weren’t even in the same studio. Each had cut a version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, and Motown producers simply put the two together, taking bits and pieces from each version.
Then the hits started coming…”Your Precious Love” and “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”.
However, as she was achieving success, the migraines and headaches that she had suffered as a youth had returned, and while performing onstage with Marvin in October, 1967, she collapsed in Gaye’s arms. She was rushed to a local hospital, where she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
She recorded another album’s worth of songs with Marvin, including the hit “You’re All I Need To Get By,” but could not perform, as she underwent a series of operations to remove the tumor. In 1969, Gaye was performing at the Apollo Theatre and spotted a very ill Tammi Terrell in the audience. He came down and sang a couple of songs with her from where she was seated. It was her last public appearance.
She died on March 16, 1970, a little over a month before her 25th birthday.
Her death sent Marvin Gaye into a downward spiral, and he didn’t perform for several months afterward. He was the only performer that the family allowed at Tammi’s funeral, and he gave a eulogy while “You’re All I Need To Get By” played in the background.
I find it amazing that this talented young woman led such a tragic life, yet accomplished so much in such a short time. Just check out this video and see how well she and Marvin harmonized together.
And check out those beautiful eyes.