I think of Tammi Terrell’s short 24 years on this planet, nearly 34 years old, and think I’m really wasting time. It didn’t exactly take that much time for her to establish herself as a legend. I don’t know whether her early death elicits moments of sadness, because she fought up until she went into a Coma for the last time in 1970 for her moments of existence.
As known and well covered, she was born Thomasina Montgomery in Philadelphia April 29, 1945. Tommie as she became known, she brought effervescence to her childhood and carried some of her mother’s aspirations as an actress towards her own desires as a performer. Brazen, Bold and Beautiful, by the time she turned 15, she was performing. Before her 16th Birthday, she was in recording studios showing wisdom beyond her years.
In reality, sexual assault in her early teen years probably informed a complex wisdom that showed up on her earliest recordings for Scepter Records. The distinct emotions in each charge of “I know, I Know, I KNOW, YES I KNOW!!!!” that start off her reading of “Voice Of Experience” go from wisdom to rage in a matter of seconds before she brings that opener to tears. Then she plows through the rest of the song the wise teacher, the student hall monitor worried about her peers safety.
It’s none too clear why, other than her youth and focus on her education why Florence Greenberg didn’t focus on promoting her more during her 2 years at Scepter. She was already handed possibly the most future looking of Burt Bacharach compositions in “Sinner’s Devotion.” Again, standing tall and wise beyond her years, you can hear shades of where Dionne Warwick would go at the end of 1963.
By 1963, the 18 year old Tammy Montgomery was under the brutal stewardship of the temperamental Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Knowledge of the physical and psychological abuse she lived through makes her first Pop Chart entry, “I Cried” sometimes too vivid a portrait to hear. The real visuals of it were finally enough for her and others, by 1964 she found herself thinking of giving up performance for good, and enrolling Pre-Med at UPenn.
I guess, out of my own Venus in Taurus possessiveness, I’m glad that her performing career didn’t end there, and that Dr. Tammy Montgomery isn’t some speck of R&B history with a few fine singles under her belt. Leave it to a Sagittarius like Jerry Butler to finally cajole her back out on the road to tour. During early 1965 she stood by as his opening act, however her poise and sophistication basically baked in, she wasn’t to stay out of the spotlight forever.
By Spring of ’65, the gigs brought them to Detroit’s 20 Grand, where a number of Motown machine men and women relaxed after a hard day in Studio A (if they weren’t performing themselves). Contract-less Terrell wow’d Berry Gordy, which resulted on her becoming one of the many Motown prizes earned for ’65 (including Barbara McNair, Billy Eckstine and Gladys Knight & The Pips). Tammi signed on her 20th birthday, and changed her professional last name to Terrell for her finest, and final act.
While the majority of attention during her 4 years of recording history with Motown still gets devoted to her work with Marvin Gaye, it can’t be discounted that she found herself in a unique place among Motown female vocalists.
Under her belt was half a decade of professional and recording experience, yet, well….she was still pretty young. She packed more wisdom in her performances compared to a number of her age peers (notably other Motown female vocalists like Diana Ross, Brenda Holloway and Chris Clark) that was less filled with affectations.
But she wasn’t an older seasoned pro like Kim Weston or McNair, or even Martha Reeves, who all had that odd flair for old torch tunes and aspirations to be Jazz singers in the mold of Ella Fitzgerald or Dinah Washington. Even when she paid tribute to those legends, it came with the auditory scent of fresh Jasmine, not old dried flowers.
However, unlike all of the Motown women mentioned above, there’s not the epic vaults deep pool of Tammi’s solo work. One big reason is a number of what would appear as duet material with Marvin over their 3 LPs credited to them started off as solo material Tammi recorded alone in 1966 through early 1967.
It’s sort of a mystery, other than Kim Weston departure from Motown while “It Takes Two” barnstormed into Top 20 listings on both sides of the Atlantic in early 1967 what prompted their pairing in the first place. It’s interesting to contemplate, that even on their breakthrough anthem “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Gaye and Terrell weren’t in the studio together, as Gaye overdubbed his vocal later. Nevermind that Dusty Springfield probably flipped the bird at the radio each time she heard it. Ashford and Simpson had played the song for her in 1966, but chose to keep it as one of the gems they took to Motown.
Nevertheless, the magic Terrell had alone ignited in Gaye, whether in the studio with her or not, to turn in some of his most enchanting interpretations of Prince Charming committed to vinyl. While he had found inspiration for the imagery and performance before from his marriage to Anna Gordy throughout his early hits, there was something extra magical, almost Garden of Eden pure about his performances in relation to Terrell.
That inspiration brings such bittersweetness. As the hits started to rack up, and Gaye and Terrell ended up in the studio together, the headaches that had plagued her since youth showed their terrifying truth. In October of 1967, after collapsing on-stage, she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
After the first surgeries, she recorded the bulk of what would be new on the You’re All I Need To Get By LP that would carry the duo to becoming the poster couple of Urban Black Love circa 1968. Well, there was Francine “Peaches” Hurd and “Herb” Fame as well (and Francine’s birthday is a day before Terrell’s. Team Taurus for the duet win), but different story for a different time.
The tumor got worse as 1968 went on, more surgeries happened, recording for their 3rd LP became a spotty prospect as she retired from live performance as 1969 began. The result here and now is the question of “who is this” on the Easy LP. Marvin Gaye said its primarily Valerie Simpson, and Valerie Simpson says she only did guide vocals.
Best I can tell is that “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” is Tammi’s last in-studio vocal, and I say that because its my favorite single from that last LP. It would make sense, finished in November of ’68, its before she spent the last 16 months of her life in and out of surgeries, maintaining hope to return to the studio and stage. Or just to survive and fall in love and live a life that never came to be.
In a number of ways its easier to remember her as the glamorous woman in babydoll dresses and Vidal Sasson wigs on Marvin Gaye’s arm than the 93 pound blind woman suffering the ravages of cancer.
Whether Motown did the right thing around releasing both Easy and her only solo LP Irresistible during that last year is a convoluted question. I’m more grateful that she, despite her pain, spent as much time in the studio as she did between late 1965 through the end of 1968.
In 24 years, but really in 7 years, she gave the world a wealth of gems that we continue to cherish and cuddle up against more than 45 years after she left us.
Today’s Taurus is Tammi Terrell. And I relish each moment I’m reintroduced to her talents.