Most people know Tammi Terrell as the Motown vocalist who recorded symbiotic duets with Marvin Gaye in 1967. Gaye and Terrell first recorded together in February of that year, when they made You’ve Got What It Takes and Oh How I’d Miss You. They recorded again in March, cutting Your Precious Love and If I Could Build My Whole World Around You. Then in April, the pair recorded several more tracks that wound up as album filler. Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing was recorded in August and September 1967.
Then on October 14, 1967, while performing with Gaye at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, Terrell collapsed on stage into Gaye's arms. Rushed to the hospital, Terrell was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Eight operations would follow. While undergoing treatment, Terrell recorded You're All I Need to Get By, and both Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing and You're All I Need to Get By became hits in 1968. Terrell died in 1970 at age 24, leaving Gaye emotionally devastated.
Lesser known is Terrell's solo career, which preceded her Gaye duets. From 1960 to 1966, Terrell recorded for Scepter, Checker and Motown. Now, Hip-O Select has issued a revealing two-CD set, Tammi Terrell: Come On and See Me—the Complete Solo Collection. The CDs feature 50 tracks with Terrell as lead singer in a range of r&b settings.
The singer's evolution is quite fascinating. She starts her recording career as a girl group siren with a Martha Reeves delivery (I Wancha' to Be Sure in '62), maturing as the years pass, particularly in the hands of Berry Gordy.
Born Thomasina Montgomery in Philadelphia in 1945, "Tommie" grew up in a well-off family but faced enormous strife and hardship. Her mother suffered from clinical depression and had to be hospitalized repeatedly. Tommie showed enormous promise at an early age, appearing on a local children's TV show as the sole black singer belting out American Songbook standards. But in 1956, the 11-year-old was raped and beaten by three boys on her way home from a rehearsal. Despite these painful events, Tommie pursued her musical development and ambition.
Discovered at age 14, Tommie was signed to Scepter Records in New York in 1960—before Dionne Warwick. Tommie's first name was changed to the more feminine Tammy and she recorded as Tammy Montgomery. After meeting James Brown in 1962, Terrell wound up in an abusive relationship with the singer, and the union ended in 1963. In 1964, she signed with the Checker label, recording four tracks, again as Tammy Montgomery.
The following year, Montgomery joined singer Jerry Butler's touring musical revue. In Detroit, she was discovered again, this time by Motown's Berry Gordy, who signed her in 1965. He also changed her name to Tammi Terrell.
Terrell's voice during her solo period was flexible and adaptable. From single to single, she could sound like Ronnie Spector (Voice of Experience), Dionne Warwick (I Cried) or Diana Ross (If You Don't Think). Simply by modulating her intonation, Terrell could execute a ballad in a low register or take her voice up into a girlie range. What you hear is a singer trying to iron out her identity while likely being asked to sound like one hit singer after the next.
This collection's first CD features Terrell's Scepter, Checker and Motown output as a solo singer. The second CD is devoted to Motown rarities and a live performance at Detroit's Roostertail in 1966. Included here is her half of Ain't No Mountain High Enough, before it was dubbed with Gaye's part in the studio. The track gives you a look behind the process.
There's also a revealing medley of What a Difference a Day Makes, Runnin' Out of Fools, Tell Me the Truth and Baby Love. These were recorded originally by Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson and Diana Ross, respectively.
This set is a solid tribute to an almost forgotten singer who was poised to become a big solo star in her own right. It's also a dynamic slice of music history as heard through the voice of a struggling artist who finally makes it—only to see everything vanish with horrific speed. The liner notes by Daphne Brooks, professor of English and African-American Studies at Princeton, make this set a treasure.
JazzWax clip: Here's Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967. On all of their duets, you had the sense that their love was real and that the words were more than just lyrics. Dig the electric chemistry between Gaye and Terrell, dubbed here or otherwise...