Remember Motown Singer Tammi Terrell? Her Life Was Full of Tragedy before Her Untimely Death at 24
If the name “Tammi Terrell” does not ring a bell, it's because this talented woman was hugely underrated and lived a short life, facing several health and relationship challenges.
Terrell was once the darling of Motown but is hardly remembered today. The man with whom she made many of her memorable hits, Marvin Gaye, is considered a music legend but Terrell has somewhat been relegated to the background.
Terrell (birth name Thomasina Winifred Montgomery) was born in Philadelphia on April 29, 1945, just as World War II was coming to an end. It was clear from the onset that Terrell was destined for greatness.
After taking an interest in music as a kid, she began piano and dance lessons at age three. By age 15, Terrell had scored her first record deal under the Wand subsidiary of Scepter Records and was well on her way to take the world by storm.
Terrell released two singles with the label under the name Tammi Montgomery before leaving to team up with James Brown as a backup vocalist. Despite Terrell being a teenager, Brown engaged her in a sexual relationship that, unfortunately, was also abusive.
SURVIVING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
There were several reports of Brown constantly hitting Terrell and the late Bobby Bennett, a former member of the “Famous Flames” where Brown began his career, confirmed it in a 1989 Rolling Stone feature.
“He beat Tammi Terrell terrible. She was bleeding, shedding blood. Tammi left him because she didn’t want her butt whipped.”
Terrell eventually left Brown for another record label but after one failed single, decided to hold off on music to pursue a pre-med degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
As fate would have it, Terrell joined the iconic Jerry Butler in a series of night club shows two years later. It was during one of such performances at The 20 Grand club in Detroit that she caught the attention of Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy.
That chance meeting heralded Terrell’s Motown entrance, and she signed the contract on her 20th birthday in 1965. It was Gordy who suggested she change her name to Tammi Terrell.
Terrell went on to release her first single under the label "I Can't Believe You Love Me," before going on tour with one of its top groups at the time, “The Temptations.”
SUFFERING ABUSE AGAIN
Terrell came on board as their opening act and would later begin a romantic relationship with the lead vocalist, David Ruffin.
Much like her last high-profile relationship, Terrell’s affiliation with Ruffin was ill-fated. Not only was he abusive, but Ruffin also deceived the singer with a proposal when he had a wife, kids, and a string of mistresses across the country.
There were reports that Ruffin hit Terrell at different times with a hammer, a machete and a motorcycle helmet, and in 1967, the budding songbird cut her losses and ended the relationship.
A NEW ERA BEGINS
Almost as though that split symbolized new beginnings, Terrell teamed up the same year with legendary Motown artist, Marvin Gaye, for a string of love songs that stirred millions of hearts across the globe.
The duo’s first album, “United,” was released in 1967 and included the all-time classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which stayed two weeks at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and three weeks at No. 3 on the R&B chart
Other hits like “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Your Precious Love,” and “If This World Were Mine” also combined to establish Gaye and Terrell as a formidable music force.
HEALTH CHALLENGES SURFACE
Unfortunately, Terrell would not be able to savor the success of “United" entirely; she had always complained of migraines from childhood, and they got worse as she got older.
On October 14, 1967, during a promotional tour performance for their album in Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, Terrell collapsed on stage in Gaye’s arms.
Doctors initially diagnosed her as being exhausted but after further tests, discovered that Terrell had a malignant tumor on the right side of her brain.
THE FINAL DAYS
After undergoing surgery, Terrell returned to work with Gaye on their second album, “You’re All I Need.” The album spawned evergreen tracks like “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” but while it marked the height of the duo’s career, Terrell’s health was only getting worse.
By 1969, after numerous surgeries, doctors advised Terrell to retire from live performances. The same year, Motown Records released her first and only solo album, “Irresistible” but the songbird was too ill to promote it.
Terrell underwent her eighth surgery in 1970. By this time, she was already blind, using a wheelchair and losing her hair. The singer fell into a coma after the surgery and passed away on March 16, 1970, a few weeks before her 25th birthday.
Terrell’s family, angry at the way Motown treated the singer during her lifetime, banned anyone affiliated to the label from attending her funeral.
The only exception was Gaye, who delivered a moving eulogy to his late singing partner while their song, "You're All I Need to Get By," played in the background.
Gaye, who would also pass away in 1984, was reportedly so devastated by Terrell’s death that he withdrew from live performances for a few years.
It’s been over four decades now since Terrell has died, but her legacy lives on in the timeless musical wonders she created with Gaye.
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