Sort of a Repost: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

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My original post about this song centered on Marvin Gaye, who was equally a brilliant artist and a haunted man.  But this time, I’d like to delve a little more into his singing partner, Tammi Terrell, who it seems was almost as troubled.  Today is the anniversary of her death from brain cancer in 1970; if she’d lived, she’d be 68 this year.

I looked up some information about Terrell on Wikipedia, because other than the fact that she sang some incredible duets with Marvin Gaye and that she collapsed on stage in his arms, I knew pretty much nothing about this beautiful woman.  Born in Philadelphia, she began singing as a teenager, signing with James Brown’s label among others.  Her career was a commercial failure in spite of her spectacular voice; she even left the music business and began studying pre-med at the University of Pennsylvania.  Lured back to professional singing by Jerry Butler, Terrell eventually signed with Motown and became a star.

She had a couple of Top Forty singles on her own before Berry Gordy paired her with Marvin Gaye.  They just exploded off the stage together; they were electric.  Watching them perform together, it’s hard to believe they weren’t romantically involved.  But Gaye was married to Gordy’s sister Anna, and Terrell was involved in a tumultuous relationship with Temptations singer David Ruffin (who was very married to someone else).  Even though the relationship would’ve been doomed by her illness, I can’t help but think both Terrell and Gaye would’ve been better off if they had been together.  There’s such an obvious love and friendship between them.

Terrell’s romantic life can only be termed “difficult.”  From an abusive relationships with James Brown to her affair with Ruffin, Terrell seemed to find only the wrong men.  (She was engaged at the time of her death–to someone who was not a singer or musician.)  She did have strong friendships, though, most notably with Gaye.  Those friendships and her family must have sustained her through her career and illness.  It’s so tragic that someone so young never got to fulfill her potential.  But for those musical moments we have, Tammi Terrell was at the top of the mountain.

Vote or Shut Up!

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It’s primary voting day here in California.  Which is why I’m reposting this slightly edited post from February.  Voting makes me feel so American.

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

One of Whitney Houston’s star turns was her performance of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991.  She had the style of voice and just enough vocal range to knock it out of the park, a truly fine performance of a song that I consider almost unsingable.  The reminder that she did it well made me think of other times I’ve heard excellent performances of our National Anthem.  There was a common denominator to the ones I picked out.

First of all, since “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable except by someone with a remarkable voice and vocal range (think opera, not pop/rock), instrumental/orchestral versions are almost always superior.  But of the times I’ve heard it sung more than passably by a popular singer, Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye are the two that come to mind.  And instrumentally, I am especially partial to Jimi Hendrix’s sunrise anthem at Woodstock (god bless the solid body electric guitar).  And it suddenly dawned on me that all the versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” I find truly inspiring (well, the ones that don’t involve either patriotic events or small children) are all by African-Americans.  It’s an interesting coincidence.

Race relations in the United States, especially between blacks and whites, are difficult to discuss.  It’s such an emotional, complicated topic that even today, when we have an African-American president, it is impossible to come to any sort of resolution.  Of course, that may be because there is no resolution yet.  Racism will always exist, and those of us who believe in equality and freedom will always have to battle people who think ignorance and bigotry are a god-given right.  We fought a horrible civil war largely over the racist institution of slavery.  We had to amend the Constitution to make sure that black people were given the same civil rights as white people.  We’ve had to bring in military troops just so black students could attend school with white students.  The Supreme Court had to rule that there is no such thing as “separate but equal” before racist laws were struck down.  There is nothing about the history of black-white relations in this country that is not somehow tinged with (often bloody) struggle.

I used to wonder when I was younger why so many African-Americans made everything about race, why they were always bringing it in to every conversation and discussion.  And then it dawned on me (thank you Ralph Ellison): It’s always about race for black people because white people never, ever let them forget that they’re black.  They’re not the ones making it about race; it’s a white-dominated society with its institutionalized racism making it about race.

Which makes the fact that these performances of our National Anthem especially poignant.  It’s not something that gets highlighted very often, and I’ll bet Whitney, Marvin, and Jimi were well aware of it.  They understood the power they had–the power of their talent–to bring people together for those few moments.  And they knew how important it was that they were Americans.  Black Americans.  That it wasn’t about the color of their skin or even the content of their characters in that moment.  They were simply Americans, singing their National Anthem for other Americans.

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

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I was channel flipping the other night and ran across an episode of American Masters on PBS about the late, great Marvin Gaye.  He had one of those voices. Clear, beautiful, rich, vibrant, and, yeah, sexy as hell.  He probably could’ve sung his way into Mother Theresa’s bed if he wanted to.  It didn’t hurt that he was drop dead gorgeous, either.  But I think what made Marvin Gaye so fascinating was the complexity of his soul.  He was powerfully torn between heaven and hell, between his spiritual impulses and the weakness of his humanity.  Hearing the people who knew and loved him talk about how this conflict destroyed him broke my heart.

The hardest part about being an artist seems to be finding a way to balance the various parts of life, body, and soul in such a way that you can survive the demands of fame.  I know that fame comes with a lot of perks, money being one of the most obvious, but there is a psychic toll that most people don’t really understand.  And it wasn’t fame that killed Marvin Gaye.  But fame gave him access to money and drugs, and given the emotional turmoil he already lived with, it was easy to predict that he would end up struggling with both.  Marvin Gaye was shot to death by his father in 1984, in his parents’ home in Los Angeles, after his comeback had come undone with more drugs.  Gaye’s relationship with his father had always been fraught (I don’t know enough to say this with authority, but is sounded pretty abusive to me).

Knowing the difficulties of Marvin Gaye’s life makes what he could do with his voice even more miraculous.  He sang with such joy and conviction, especially in his duets with Tammi Terrell (who also died tragically, of a brain tumor at age 24).  My personal favorite has always been “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  They weren’t lovers, but you’d never know it listening to them sing to each other.  It’s both sad and uplifting to hear them vow to always be there for each other even after they’re separated.  When Marvin sings “I made a vow, I’ll be there when you want me, someway, somehow” you believe him.  You believe Tammi when she exclaims “my love is alive.”  Their voices mesh perfectly, smooth technique and raw emotion mingling effortlessly.  After Tammi collapsed on stage into Marvin’s arms, it seems to me his voice was never as joyous again; there was always a hint of melancholy after she died.  It’s part of what made him so great.

Marvin Gaye was consumed by his demons.  It might’ve been that way even if he hadn’t been a famous singer.  In the end, he couldn’t save himself.  That’s what makes me so sad.  But we all have that moment, recorded forever, when he could cross any mountain, and we can all sing along.

 

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

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All the talk about Whitney Houston’s tragic death and the reviews of her career have got me thinking.  Not about Whitney, per se, but about “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

One of Houston’s star turns was her performance of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991.  She had the style of voice and just enough vocal range to knock it out of the park, a truly fine performance of a song that I consider almost unsingable.  The reminder that she did it well made me think of other times I’ve heard excellent performances of our National Anthem.  There was a common denominator to the ones I picked out.

First of all, since “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable except by someone with a remarkable voice and vocal range (think opera, not pop/rock), instrumental/orchestral versions are almost always superior.  But of the times I’ve heard it sung more than passably by a popular singer, Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye are the two that come to mind.  And instrumentally, I am especially partial to Jimi Hendrix’s sunrise anthem at Woodstock (god bless the solid body electric guitar).  And it suddenly dawned on me that all the versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” I find truly inspiring (well, the ones that don’t involve either patriotic events or small children) are all by African-Americans.  It’s an interesting coincidence.

Race relations in the United States, especially between blacks and whites, are difficult to discuss.  It’s such an emotional, complicated topic that even today, when we have an African-American president, it is impossible to come to any sort of resolution.  Of course, that may be because there is no resolution yet.  Racism will always exist, and those of us who believe in equality and freedom will always have to battle people who think ignorance and bigotry are a god-given right.  We fought a horrible civil war largely over the racist institution of slavery.  We had to amend the Constitution to make sure that black people were given the same civil rights as white people.  We’ve had to bring in military troops just so black students can attend school with white students.  The Supreme Court had to rule that there is no such thing as “separate but equal” before racist laws were struck down.  There is nothing about the history of black-white relations in this country that is not somehow tinged with (often bloody) struggle.

I used to wonder when I was younger why so many African-Americans made everything about race, why they were always bringing it in to every conversation and discussion.  And then it dawned on me (thank you Ralph Ellison): It’s always about race for black people because white people never, ever let them forget that they’re black.  They’re not the ones making it about race; it’s a white-dominated society with its institutionalized racism making it about race.

Which makes the fact that these performances of our National Anthem especially poignant.  It’s not something that gets highlighted very often, and I’ll bet Whitney, Marvin, and Jimi were well aware of it.  They understood the power they had–the power of their talent–to bring people together for those few moments.  And they knew how important it was that they were Americans.  Black Americans.  That it wasn’t about the color of their skin or even the content of their characters in that moment.  They were simply Americans, singing their National Anthem for other Americans.