When you mention Tammi Terrell around Philadelphia, those that knew her have fond memories. They remember her sweet voice, her beautiful face--a hometown sweetheart who did not reach her fullest potential. Thomasina Montgomery was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 24, 1945 (some reports state that she was born on April 29, 1946. The headstone on her grave, however, shows 1945 as her birth year). She was the daughter of a former actress; her father, Bob Montgomery, owned a barbershop on Berks Street in North Philly.
Young Tammi’s entertainment career started with a series of talent contests at Philadelphia’s Earle Theater at age 11, and she began her recording career at age 15 under New York’s Scepter/Wand record label and her recordings included "If You See Bill," "Sinner's Devotion" and "Voice Of Expeience." James Brown saw her at the Uptown Theater, and she became a member of the James Brown Revue and recorded for Brown's Try Me label. According to one source, Brown said that he and Tammi were romantically involved. After one year, she left the James Brown Revue due to her family’ s objections (maybe because she was still a teenager). She recorded as Tammi Montgomery until 1964 and had a brief stint at Checker Records. She recorded several singles in the early sixties, but none would garner the success that she would eventually have with Motown.
Tammi studied pre-med at the University of Pennsylvania for two years. When Motown founder and President Berry Gordy heard her in a Detroit nightclub in 1965, she signed with Motown and recorded under the name Tammi Terrell. She was briefly married to boxer Ernie Terrell, brother of ex-Supreme Jean Terrell (one other source states that she was not married to him; only that she took the name because it was shorter than Montgomery). Tammi made an entire album of her own entitled "Irresistible" and had two R&B charted hits with "I Can't Believe You Love Me" and "Come On And See Me."
In 1967, she became Marvin Gaye’s recording partner, his third after Mary Wells and Kim Weston. And what a collaboration! Marvin had found his soulmate in song. No other duet in recording history could come close to the romantic, melodious sounds that Marvin and Tammi delivered. Rumors abound that they were lovers—who wouldn’t believe that rumor just by hearing them sing together?
Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua were the initial producers for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. They produced their earlier songs, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which reached #3 on the R&B charts, and the #2 R&B track, “Your Precious Love”, both found on Tammi’s United album and released in October 1967. Johnny Bristol once said that “the sound of their two voices together was better than any of the other duets Marvin had done.”
All of Tammi and Marvin’s popular hit recordings were composed by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Not only had the Ashford and Simpson duo written, but they also produced, sang background vocals and played piano on their Marvin and Tammi compositions. Their first #1 song was “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, in June 1968. Two months came their second #1 hit, “You’re All I Need To Get By,” which Ashford and Simpson affirmed is a song with gospel connotations. These songs are found on Tammi’ s You’re All I Need album.
Tammi had complained of severe migraines for some time. There was speculation of an alleged brain disorder due to physical abuse—some say from ex-Temptation David Ruffin, some say from a Motown executive. She was on the verge of stardom when she collapsed on stage, in Marvin’s arms, at Hamden-Sydney College in Virginia in 1967. She was then diagnosed as having a brain tumor and underwent six operations in two years. Afterwards, she was unable to perform publicly. As her health deteriorated, Valerie Simpson stepped in to perform several songs intended for Tammi, the most notable was “The Onion Song”, which was released posthumously.
She died thirty years ago in Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital on March 16, 1970, at the tender young age of 24. Her funeral was held at Janes United Methodist Church in Germantown section of Philadelphia. Germantown High School, located next to the church, announced her funeral over the loudspeaker and closed the school for the day. Many of her Motown family members, including Marvin Gaye, were in attendance. Gaye wrote in his biography, Divided Soul, that
“Tammi was the victim of the violent side of love—at least that’s how it felt. I have no…knowledge of what really killed her, but it was a deep vibe, as though she was dying for everyone who couldn’t find love.” After Tammi Terrell’s death, Marvin Gaye spent time in seclusion and did not work for three years thereafter. She is buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, northwest of Philadelphia International Airport. Her sister, Ludie Montgomery, continues to receive love and support for Tammi via letters and via e-mail.
Our Sweetheart will continue to live on through her music and our memories.
Sources: Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Albums 1965-1998, Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles 1942-1999, Stars of Soul and R&B, The Billboard Book of #1 R&B Hits
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