Remember Motown Singer Tammi Terrell? Her Life Was Full of Tragedy before Her Untimely Death at 24
It’s been 49 years since the death of one of Motown’s greatest: Tammi Terrell. Still, little is known about the tragic life of one of the first women to add to the success of the legendary record label.
Born as Thomasina Montgomery, the R&B star developed her passion for music as a kid. At 3-year-old, she was already taking piano and dancing lessons, and by the time she turned 11, Tammi took part on her first talent show. At 15, she signed her first record deal under the Wand subsidiary of Scepter Records.
After releasing two singles with the label, under the name Tammi Montgomery, she was introduced to James Brown. The singer became a backup vocalist for Brown and became involved in a sexual relationship with the man. She was 17.
However, the relationship soon became violent, with Brown constantly beating Tammi. According to Bobby Bennett, a former member of the Famous Flames, he witnessed Brown assaulting Tammi one night on the road.
"He beat Tammi Terrell terrible. She was bleeding, shedding blood. Tammi left him because she didn't want her butt whipped", he recalled.
Tammi ended up leaving Brown for good and signed with Checker Records. But after one failed single, she decided to put a pause on her music career to pursue a pre-med degree on the University of Pennsylvania.
Two years later, she was asked by Jerry Butler to join him in a series of night club shows, and during a performance at the Twenty Grand Club in Detroit, she was spotted by Motown CEO Berry Gordy, who offered her a contract and signed her on the day she turned 20.
After releasing her first single, "I Can't Believe You Love Me," Terrell joined The Temptations on tour as their opening act. There, she met the band's lead singer David Ruffin and became romantically involved with him.
In 1966, Ruffin proposed to Tammi, and she said yes. However, Terrell would end up brokenhearted after discovering that Ruffin had a wife, three kids and many other girlfriends around the country. Their relationship became abusive too, and specific reports state Ruffin hit Tammi in the head with his motorbike helmet, and also with a hammer. She ended the relationship in 1967.
Tammi joined Marvin Gaye in early 1967 to form a duo dedicated to singing love songs. Their debut album, “United,” includes the timeless hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and other successful singles like "Your Precious Love,” "If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” and "If This World Were Mine."
Terrell, who had always suffered from migraines through her childhood and teen years, was always complaining of her pain. Still, she assured her team that she was in good condition to perform. But in on October 14, 1967, while playing with Gaye at Hampden–Sydney College, Terrell collapsed on stage.
At first, doctors thought it was just exhaustion, but after further inspection, they discovered a malign tumor on the right side of Tammi’s brain.
She went under her first surgery successfully, and keep working with Gaye to record their second album, “You’re All I Need,” which featured some of the songs that represent the pinnacle of the duo’s career, like “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.”
In 1969, Tammi’s health had deteriorated even more. She had gone under more surgeries and was advised to retire from the spotlight by her doctors. Motown releasedTerrell's first and only solo album, “Irresistible,” in early 1969. She was too ill to promote it.
By early 1970, Tammi used a wheelchair, was blind, and losing her hair. After her eighth surgery, Terrell fell into a coma, and died six weeks later, just a few days ahead of her 24th birthday.
Tammi’s family was angered by the way Motown had treated the singer, so they refused anyone with the label entrance to Tammi’s funeral. Except for Gaye, who gave a heartfelt eulogy for his friend while "You're All I Need to Get By" was playing in the background.
Despite her contributions to Motown's success back in the '60s, Tammi is constantly forgotten or fades into the background. Her tragedy-filled life ended too soon, but her legacy still stands in the timeless vocals of her and Gaye's love songs.