Tammi Terrell (Image by
Tammi Terrell was just 24 years old when she died of a brain tumor, 43 years ago today. But during her too-short life, she recorded some of Motown's most enduring classics – both as a solo artist and in duets, most notably with Marvin Gaye. Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published March 2012.
Terrell was just 14 years old when she recorded her first single, "If You See Bill." She was still going by the name Tammy Montgomery at the time – Montgomery was her real last name, and Tammy a nickname for Thomasina that she took after seeing the romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor.
The record didn't make much of a splash with the public, but it did give Terrell's career a bit of oomph with record execs. She began touring, recording and meeting some of R&B's greats – like James Brown, who she dated when she was just a teen and he was 30. The relationship ended after it became abusive. Other notable relationships were with Sam Cooke and David Ruffin, though Terrell never married.
When she began recording with Motown in 1965, Berry Gordy christened her Tammi Terrell – after searching for a name oozing with sex appeal. Soon, Terrell began recording the greatest, most celebrated songs of her career: her duets with Marvin Gaye.
Terrell and Gaye continued to work together even as she became sick and began to weaken – one time collapsing in his arms onstage during a show in Virginia. Despite her advancing brain tumor, the duo created magical love songs.
Marvin Gaye was devastated by Terrell's death, and his album What's Going On was written in part as a response to the loss. Gaye, too, died young, just 44 years old when he was killed by his father. But the songs he and Tammi Terrell recorded together remain classics, decades after we lost their singers.