40 years ago today, Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, better known as Tammi Terrell, died of a brain tumor just a month short of her 25th birthday. She was one of that incredible crop of 1960’s soul diva’s who knew how to seduce or belt out a song. Today she is best remembered for her Motown duets with Marvin Gaye with singles like “Ain't No Mountain High Enough”, “Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing”, “Your Precious Love” and “You're All I Need to Get By.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1945, as a teenager Tammi Terrell recorded for the Scepter/Wand label, releasing two solo discs under the name Tammy Montgomery. Both singles released in 1961, “If You See Bill,” and “Voice of Experience,” failed to chart. At about the same time, she also did session work doing backup vocals for the legendary Shirelles. In 1963 she was discovered by James Brown and joined his Revue. While under contract with Brown, Tammi released one single on his Try Me label, “I Cried.” At the time it was rumored that Terrell and Brown were romantically involved, something that didn’t quite fly with her parents, leading to her quick departure; she was replaced by Anna King. Next she signed with Checker Records' label, releasing one single, “If I Would Marry You.” Unfortunately her string of unsuccessful releases continued. In 1965 she signed with Motown, Barry Gordy changed her name to Tammi Terrell, and there she finally scored a couple of Top 30 singles on the R&B charts with 1966’s "I Can't Believe You Love Me" and "Come on and See Me." But it was when she was paired up with Marvin Gaye in 1967 that success finally came, fast and furious, with five top three R&B charting singles in just over a year. But all her success was short lived. On October 14, 1967, while in concert at Ogden Hall at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, she collapsed on stage in Gaye's arms. She was rushed to the hospital, where she was later diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She had complained of severe migraine headaches for some time.
For years now stories have circulated that Tammi was the victim of a physically abusive boyfriend who had not only thrown her down a flight of stairs, but had also hit her over the head with a steel chair. But no actual allegations were ever proved. Terrell would undergo eight separate operations over the next three years for cancer; suffering from memory loss, numbness and weakness, blindness, she become far too sick to work. Eventually she was confined to a wheelchair and her weight dropped to under 85 lbs.
Tammi Terrell died on March 16th, 1970. She’s buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Marvin Gaye was devastated by her death. He took a long hiatus from live performances. And in his period of self-isolation, amidst his depression he re-evaluated his whole concept of what music might say. The result was the classic 1971 album What's Going On, a meditative, low key work which dealt, in part, with Tammi Terrell's death and issues of the world around him -- injustice, suffering and hatred.