The Missing Music: Tammi Terrell   Leave a comment

September 20, 2011

Part 3: Tammy Terrell: It Took Two

This is the third of ten posts about ten important women in the recording industry, each of whom died long before their time. If you haven’t already read through the introduction to this series, please follow this link to the “introduction“, and then go on to any of the individual posts.

Tammi Terrell (1945-1970)

In the recording business of the 1950s and 1960s there were plenty of singing partners. Often the pairings were organic, meaning the performers got together because it is what they wanted. Other times the pairings were more likely the result of a producer’s idea than, say, Les Paul and Mary Ford, or the Righteous Brothers. Some enjoyed long careers—the Everly Brothers had 36 chart singles starting with  “All I Have To Do Is Dream” in 1958, while others were one-hit-wonders—the Teen Queens’ 1956 release “Eddie My Love” was their only hit; and there were plenty of artists in between. Not infrequently, the duo was a perfect pairing. Consider Brook Benton and Dinah Washington, Jerry Butler and Betty Everett,  and even Sonny & Cher. So what is it about certain songs and certain recordings that might not have been hits without a decision to harmonize? Duets are not something that guarantee a record will be a hit, but once they do make the charts, it’s hard to think of them as having been recorded by a single voice. For me it was that way with Tammi Terrell.

Terrell was blessed with a voice that got inside of you once you heard it. But to be honest, I don’t remember hearing her solo recordings until after her success with Marvin Gaye. Perhaps that’s how a lot of people discovered her. She did have some solo success, but nothing like the music she made later. Of the fourteen Tammi Terrell records that made Billboard’s charts between 1966 and 1970, only three were as a solo performer. Like it or not, Terrell was, and will forever be most closely associated with the records she made with Marvin Gaye. It must have been an amazing moment when she entered the studio to record duets with him. After all, Terrell’s new singing partner had been a regular success on the charts since 1962. Among Marvin Gaye’s 15 earlier (prior to the first duet sessions) solo hits were “Hitch Hike”, “Can I Get A Witness”, “You’re  A Wonderful One”, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, and “Ain’t That Peculiar”.

Gaye had worked with others in duets or ensembles (including Kim Weston, Mary Wells, and Diana Ross,) but nothing came close to the quality, emotion, or dynamics of the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell sessions. The five most significant duets—as I hear them, and in no particular order—are: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, “You’re All I Need To Get By”, “Your Precious Love”. Terrell’s style and control, the way her voice complimented Gaye’s (and his hers), and the crafting of the songs, signify a magical moment in time. “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By”, both written by the late Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, were the perfect songs for the time. And for this time. Whatever Marvin and Tammi’s true relationship, those records made you believe that they could be in love, and that each believed the lyrics when they sang, as in “You’re All I Need To Get By”. Regardless of their real or imagined relationship there was no future. She collapsed on stage during a 1967 performance with Marvin Gaye. A brain tumor was the diagnosis, and in less than three years, at age 25, she was gone. By all reports, Marvin Gaye took the loss particularly hard.

The wonderful aspect of the recording industry is that forty years after her death we still have her music. And we still have Tammi.

Prior: Janis Joplin

Next: Sandy Denny

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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