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.