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The Tuneful Tammi Terrell

Published: 3/16/2012
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Tammi Terrell (Wikimedia Commons)

Tammi Terrell was just 24 when she died of a brain tumor, 42 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.

Terrell recorded her first single, "If You See Bill," at 14. 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. Though she never married, she had other notable romantic relationships with Sam Cooke and David Ruffin.

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.

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 when he was killed by his father. But the songs he and Terrell recorded together remain classics, decades after we lost their singers.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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