The Brilliant Life of Tammi Terrell

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The Brilliant Life of Tammi Terrell


Tammi Terrell’s contributions to the field of popular music are the stuff of legend. A gorgeous woman with a small gap between her 2 front teeth, she possessed uncanny vocal talents that were even more remarkable than her breathtaking beauty. Tragically, her career was cut short by a diagnosis of brain cancer that ultimately took her life at the age of 24. Her brief life was a gift to music lovers the world over.

Despite the fact that her career ended in the late 1960s, many of her songs are mainstays on radio to this day. If you are an English speaker anywhere on the planet, it is virtually impossible for you not to have heard any of her music.

Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye perform a duet together

Abusive relationships

Terrell was in at least 2 high profile abusive relationships during her young adult life. There has also been speculation that her lesser known relationships were routinely abusive as well. It has been postulated that this led Tammi down the path of alcohol abuse in her young adulthood. These 2 relationships will be illuminated later on in this piece.

Early Life

Tammi Terrell was born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery on April 29 th, 1945. Her birthplace was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Tammi Terrell as a young girl

Her family nicknamed her “Tommie”. At age 12, she saw the movie “Tammy and the Bachelor”. Such was the extent of the film’s influence on her that she decided to change her nickname from Tommie to Tammy. From that point on she would be known as Tammy.

During her adolescence she began suffering from migraine headaches. Years later, after a brain tumor had claimed her life, her family members would go on to speculate that these migraines may have been an early warning sign of the illness that ultimately caused her untimely passing.

Tammy’s prodigious singing talent was already well established in her family by this point. She became a local sensation through television appearances that were broadcast in the Philadelphia area before being discovered by Scepter Records. Representatives from the label hoped that she would become a girl-group singer vocalist.

Terrell was uninterested in singing bubblegum pop songs. She preferred mature-themed popular music and she had the voice to back up this desire. She possessed a voice that emanated not only an incredible range, but also uncommon intensity and a maturity that was years ahead of her age. She truly possessed an awe inspiring gift.

After her stint with Scepter/Wand records, she joined James Brown’s Try Me recording label and went on to become a member of James Brown’s Revue. Joining The James Brown Revue was a wonderful opportunity for Terrell. James Brown was the most popular black artist in the United States in the mid-1960s and he was peaking – in terms of mainstream popularity – at this time. She signed on as a background vocalist and was promptly introduced into a lavish lifestyle featuring expensive clothes, upscale locations and money to burn. However, her stint under the aegis of James Brown was short lived as she was soon introduced to the seedier side of the music industry.

Romantic relationship with James Brown

James Brown

Tammi toured with The James Brown Revue at the age of 17. She signed on to be a vocalist that sang in a supporting role to Brown’s explosive oratory. Brown showered her with expensive gifts, lavish hotel rooms, manicures, pedicures and money. Being that Tammi was so young, her mother was assured that she would be looked after by a female Brown assistant named Gurtie.

Signs that all was not well became quickly apparent. Tammi’s mother and sister came to visit her in New York. After spending an entire day engaging in a prolific shopping spree and enjoying the sights of the city they retired to Tammi’s luxury hotel room. When Tammi, her sister and her mother opened the door to the room, her mother was completely shocked to see James Brown sleeping in Tammi’s bed. Brown, startled asleep and even more surprised to see Tammi along with her sister and her mother standing over him, promptly exchanged cordial pleasantries with the 3 women and left the room.

James Brown was 30 years old at the time and Tammi’s mother was immediately concerned with the obvious implications of him sleeping in Tammi’s bed. Brown’s assistant, Gurtie, assured Terrell’s mother that she was looking after her daughter. Trusting Gurtie, Tammi’s mother left Tammi in New York City with James Brown.

Her mother’s fears were well founded. Tammi was indeed in a romantic relationship with James Brown. To make matters worse, the relationship quickly became abusive. Witnesses report that James Brown beat Terrell mercilessly on several occasions. The physical abuse was downright brutal.

Terrell endured Brown’s rage for a time, fearful of being cited for not fulfilling her contractual obligations to his label. This is an outcome that she surmised could have ruined her nascent career. However, after one particularly horrid beating by Brown, she escaped his clutches and returned home.

Terrell left the James Brown Revue to record with Jimmy Radcliffe. They released a single entitled “If I Would Marry You”. The single was not successful. After her first 3 attempts at becoming a successful recording artist met with disappointing results, Terrell enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and studied pre-med. She was a student at the university for 2 years.

A talent like Tammi’s could not merely fade into obscurity. Jerry Butler (known in soul music circles as “The Iceman”) asked Terrell to tour with him. Terrell agreed to the arrangement so long as she could continue her schooling. Butler was able to agree to her conditions.

Move to Motown Records

As luck would have it, while she was on tour in Detroit the legendary music mogul Berry Gordy saw her perform and instantaneously offered her a contract with Motown Records. This was an opportunity that Tammi could not pass up.

Berry Gordy

On April 29 th, 1965, on her 20 th birthday; Tammi Terrell signed to Motown Records.

Up until this time, Tammy had gone by the name of Tammy Montgomery. Gordy decided to change her name to Tammi Terrell. He felt that her surname was too long. He also believed that changing the “y” in Tammy to “I” would give her more of an appeal to a broader audience. Tammy, as she was popularly known, accepted the change to Tammi.

Tammi released her first Motown single, “I Can’t Believe You Love Me”.  It hit the R&B top 40. Shortly thereafter, she released “Come On and See Me”. After these early successes she joined the Motortown Revue, becoming the opening act for The Temptations. It was at this time that she met The Temptations’ lead singer David Ruffin. The 2 vocalists quickly became romantically involved. The relationship was a tumultuous one.

Romantic relationship with David Ruffin of The Temptations

The Temptations

Ruffin was seen to be physically abusive towards Terrell on numerous occasions. There was even a rumor that he once struck her in the head with a hammer.  David Ruffin began to sprial towards becoming a full-fledged drug addict during this time.  There is speculation that Terrell may have introduced him to illegal drugs and that she may have been a drug abuser as well. 

Earl Van Dyke of the Funk Brothers Band attested to witnessing an incident where Ruffin assaulted Terrell in the Hittsville Building (a building that housed Motown’s recording studios). He and several other male musicians intervened on Tammi’s behalf. He remembered Tammi yelling out, “Don’t hurt him!”.  Like many victims of domestic abuse, she could not bear to see her abuser suffer the same physical and mental indignities that she suffered only moments before.

Despite numerous eyewitness accounts of Tammi being abused at the hands of men that she was intimate with, there is very little evidence of any men coming to her defense.

Partnership with Marvin Gaye

In the early days of the year 1967, Terrell was partnered with Marvin Gaye. Thus began one of the most respected singing duets of all time. They released several songs that are continuously played on the radio to this day:

  • “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Hit #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the R&B charts).
  • “Your Precious Love” (Reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B charts).
  • ‘If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” (Hit #10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B chart).
  • “If This World Were Mine” (Hit #68 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #27 on the R&B charts).
  • “You’re All I Need To Get By” (Hit #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts – it also reached #19 on the UK charts).
  • “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (Hit #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, #1 on the R&B charts, #9 in Canada and #34 on the UK chart).

(Note: “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” were not released until1968. All of the other songs on the list were released in 1967.)

Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye became very close during this time. Despite the fact that they sang romantic duets together, they were not at all romantically entangled. Gaye regarded her as more of a little sister. Throughout Tammi’s career at Motown, Marvin Gaye was the one person on their roster of personnel that she kept in her good graces.

The incredible output of Gaye and Terrell in 1967 and 1968 made Terrell an international star. However, as soon as her star began to illuminate the world, she was forced to turn her attention to her deteriorating health.

Diagnosis of Cancer

Unbeknownst to the listening public, Tammi suffered from bouts of migraine headaches with increasing regularity. She had suffered migraines since her childhood, but the pain was becoming more intense and persistent. Despite pleas by her loved ones to halt her professional schedule so that she could have a full medical investigation performed, she consistently insisted that she was strong enough to meet her performance obligations.

On October 14, 1967, Terrell was performing with Gaye at Hampden-Sydney College when she collapsed. Marvin Gaye jumped into action and escorted her off of the stage. She finally saw a doctor when she returned from the show. It turned out that there was a tumor on the right side of her brain. The tumor was malignant. Terrell underwent the first in a series of surgeries.

Optimistic about her prognosis, she returned to form and recorded “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”.

Unfortunately, her tumor remained a problem. She was under doctor’s orders to discontinue performing indefinitely while she focused on her recovery. She endured a series of surgeries in hopes of curing her of the malignant growth. By 1969, she had completely retired from live performing.

Final duet with Marvin Gaye

Terrell had strained relationships with the staff at Motown Records. However, she retained a very close friendship with Marvin Gaye. When she was in the final stages of her illness in late 1969, she gathered the strength to attend a concert at the Apollo Theater where Marvin Gaye was performing. Gaye was performing one of their illustrious hits, “You’re All I Need to Get By” with another singer, Carla Thomas. He was not aware that Terrell was in the audience.

At this point, Terrell weighed less than 90 pounds. Still, she was roused to her feet and began singing her response lines in the song that was being performed. Marvin Gaye was now able to see Terrell in the audience. He immediately rushed off of the stage to Terrell’s side. A microphone was given to her and she gathered the energy to perform the song with Gaye. The crowd was understandably moved. The pair earned a standing ovation for what would turn out to be their last duet together. This was the last time that Tammi Terrell appeared in public.


By early 1970, Tammi had suffered tremendously. The tumor had caused her to be confined to a wheelchair. She was also blind and had lost much of her hair. After sharing her immeasurable gifts with the world and a valiant fight for life; Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, the young girl that would grow to be known to the world as Tammi Terrell; succumbed to complications that arised from the malignant tumor in her brain. She passed away on March 16 th, 1970, just one month shy of being 25 years old.

While planning Terrell’s funeral, her mother made it known that she did not want anybody from Motown Records to attend her home-going services. Tammi Terrell’s family felt that Motown was exploiting Tammi’s death by releasing her work without permission after it became public knowledge that Tammi was in a fight for her life. Marvin Gaye was the only exception to this rule (he also refused to promote the Tammi Terrell records that Motown was releasing for the same reason). Tammi’s family and even her fiancée considered Gaye to be Tammi’s closest friend.

Marvin Gaye was deeply affected by Tammi Terrell’s passing. Many have said that he never fully recovered from her death. He withdrew from public life for some time following her death. Marvin Gaye hated to perform live. Tammi Terrell was very enthusiastic about doing live performances. Because of her enthusiasm and infectious energy, Gaye was able to enjoy performing in front of a live audience with her by his side. Beyond that, they were very close friends. Though they only knew each other for a short period of time, they had an inimitable chemistry that was so dynamic that it could be felt all over the world.

Marvin Gaye provided her final eulogy while “You’re all I need to get by” played in the background.

On May 21, 1971; Marvin Gaye released Motown’s greatest selling album of all time, What’s Going On. It was the first time that Gaye ventured into the political realm with his artistic output. The album featured haunting vocals that captured the struggles of people the world over. What’s Going On is ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as #6 on their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Gaye cited Tammi Terrell’s death as the driving force behind the creation of that album.

What's Going On

Solo Anthology

Tammi Terrell Anthology: Come On and See Me

On October 8 th, 2010; recording label Hip-O Select released Come On and See Me, an anthology of Tammi Terrell’s beautiful work. The release is special in that it not only includes her professional recordings, but it is also inclusive of recordings that Tammi made as a young teenage girl in Philadelphia. There are also 13 minutes of the only known live recordings of Terrell in existence in the anthology.

She is best known for her work with Marvin Gaye. However, she was a towering giant with or without Marvin Gaye by her side. She also collaborated with numerous other Rhythm & Blues vocalists. Some of these included Jimmy Radcliffe, Bert Burns and the most influential black musician of the latter half of the 20th century, James Brown.


Tammi Terrell has had great influence on many vocalists in popular music. Some of the singers that have cited Tammi as an influence in their work are:

  • Diana Ross
  • Minnie Riperton (another great singer that passed on at a young age due to cancer)
  • Patti Austin
  • Anita Baker

I chose to write about her not only because she was a famous person with a gap in her teeth, but also because she is my favorite female recording artist. Her ability to rouse emotions in her listeners is unparalleled. Different artists are great for different reasons. Her gift was her ability to interpret music and respond with renditions that were intimate and uplifting. It seemed like she lived the words that she was singing. It was as if she was an old soul that came to uplift the masses for a few minutes at a time.  Those 3 minute songs have translated into almost 50 years of non-stop inspiration for her legions of fans.  

Tammi Terrell in black and white

The world lost a great talent when Tammi Terrell’s light was dimmed by terminal illness. Even though she lived and died before I was ever born, her voice has always struck a deep chord within me. I am grateful to have learned of her existence and been given the opportunity to hear her wonderful contributions to the colorful world of music. 

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