Tammi Terrell: The Unfortunate Path of a Queen
As a Music Historian, some artists intrigue you to the point where it’s intoxicating. You look at their lives and see complexity, simplicity, talent, happiness, sadness with a touch of the angels and demons we all face from time to time. You hear various stories that blend a person’s life together. Each life is a puzzle of sorts. It can be a constant struggle trying to figure out your own existence. We all have ambitions, dreams and goals that we set to create our own little utopia. In the record business, dreams can transition into paradise or become a nightmare for an artist. When an artist happens to be a beautiful young lady, needless to say they are preyed on by vultures of the industry and men in general. Music is an outlet to escape reality but music is also inspired by actual events. In the case of Tammi Terrell, her roller coaster was fast, short distance, dangerous, and the most rigorous in life’s amusement park.
Over the past year, I decided to focus on artists that touch my soul when hearing their music. My speakers are currently blasting Tammi’s first single that charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 titled “I CRIED”, released in 1963. I admit her voice is mesmerizing and the lyrics on this song take you on an emotional journey through her heart. It’s amazing when this song was released; she was only 18 years old. Her spirit appeared to be much older than her physical frame. On the song “I CRIED”, Tammi stated “I cried, my heart full of misery. I cried, now it’s your turn to cry for me”. A much known phrase “Don’t make me over” was uttered during this song. During this same year, Dionne Warwick released a song titled “Don’t Make Me Over”. For younger fans, you might remember the artist Sybil who gained fame with her cover of Dionne Warwick’s version of “Don’t Make Me Over”. The purpose of mentioning this song with regard to Tammi Terrell is the words within the track. The deepness matched the intensity of Terrell’s first release. It also matched the pain she would face in her life, leaving so much potential to the imagination of listeners for generations.
Growing up, Tammi faced challenges and pain during her early childhood. By the time she was 12 years old she was suffering from serious migraine headaches. Several outlets also stated that she was molested a year earlier by several males. I don’t know their ages but rumor was they were teens. Less than 8 years later, the lyrics on “I Cried” were art imitating life. When I think about my youthful years, all I remember is playing and having fun. I can’t imagine having days where I was generally sick with headaches. We overlook so many blessings even when we don’t recognize it. Tammi Terrell was born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery on April 29, 1945 in Philadelphia, PA. Tammi always enjoyed singing and despite dealing with horrendous headaches, she flourished early on vocally. By the time she was 16 years old, she had signed with a small label and recorded several songs but garnered no national attention at this time. Tammi left the label and signed with James Brown (Try Me Records) and singed backup for his band. She eventually engaged in a love affair with James Brown at the age of 17. The previously mentioned “I Cried” was written by James Brown and Bobby Byrd. Tammi was verbally and physically abused by James Brown. Bobby Bennett, of The Famous Flames was on record stating that he witnessed Brown beating Terrell into a bloody mess one day. The alleged cause was Tammi not watching his entire show on that date. There were reports back then of Brown’s crazy behavior. Tammi had dealt with so much pain before she was 20 years old.
After finally getting away from James Brown, Terrell recorded a few more songs before giving up on the music business for a while. Terrell entered the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in pre-med. The music legend Jerry Butler Jr. would approach Tammi Terell during her second year in college about collaborating on a few performances. She would eventually start touring with Butler and during a show in Detroit, Berry Gordy noticed Terrell. As I mentioned earlier, not only could Tammi Terrell sing but she was a beautiful young lady as well. I’m sure Gordy saw “STAR” written all over her. Gordy also knew that he had the resources to elevate unknown talent with potential. At the age of 20, Terrell signed with Motown Records. On a side note, Tammi Terrell was still being introduced as Tammy Montgomery. Gordy changed her professional name to Tammi Terrell for a broader (Sex) appeal. I mean, this is a male dominated business so Gordy definitely wanted to capitalize from her physical beauty. Gordy immediately put Tammi to work and her first single with Motown titled “I Can’t Believe You Love Me” was released, becoming her first Top 40 song. Tammi would eventually cover The Isley’s Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine” and Stevie Wonders “All I Do” before her debut album was released. During her first major tour opening up for The Temptations, Tammi Terrell met David Ruffin, and history started to repeat itself.
In 1966, a few years after Terrell started dating Ruffin, he proposed to her. Let me just say for the record, David Ruffin had a lot of issues. Terrell would eventually find out that Ruffin had a wife, several children and girlfriends all over. By 1967 Terrell broke up with Ruffin after he beat her badly and also is rumored to have hit her with his motorcycle helmet. Another disturbing rumor around Detroit and other entertainers was that Ruffin had actually hit Terrell in the head with a hammer before! Listen, this young lady had suffered from migraine headaches since 11-12 years of age and this fool assaulted her in the head several times! Wow, I’m amazed but I remember reading that Ruffin had serious drug issues. I read Tammi had a few issues with drugs and depression but looking at her life, it wouldn't have been a shock. It was painful reading various outlets about her relationships with James Brown and David Ruffin. There were rumors of a relationship with Sam Cooke, but I don't recall seeing much on this outside of a few pictures and brief mentions in an article or two. It was refreshing to my heart that around this time Marvin Gaye started to work with Tammi Terrell at the request of Berry Gordy. Tammi was also on the Motortown Revue (Tours) as well. You should read up on the legendary line-ups. At any rate, what happened during this time was chemistry that created magical songs that has lasted and influenced generations. Terrell truly became a star with the duets “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Written by Ashford and Simpson), “Your Precious Love”, “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, “You’re All I Need To Get By”, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (#1 on R&B Charts) and “If This World Was Mine”. These were Motown Classics that each reached Billboard and became legendary. Marvin Gaye admired Tammi Terrell for her talent and they were very close. Their album “United” is still considered a musical classic.
Tammi Terrell could never seem to escape pain. Tammi had battled some type of pain since her childhood. Even with loving parents, she couldn’t escape the vultures of life or even her own health. On a side note, it has been stated that her mother suffered from a mental illness. Obviously, I have no way of knowing if this had anything to do with Tammi’s health battles. Terrell fell onstage during a performance in 1967 and her life would never the same. During her hospital stay, she was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. Over the next 2 years she had 8 surgeries after the tumor continued to worsen. In 1969, Tammi Terrell officially retired from stage performances. Motown released her only solo album “Irresistible” in 1969, but she was too ill to engage in any promotional activities. Marvin Gaye took her illness very hard as he was already dealing with his own personal issues. Gaye recorded several albums with Terrell (Duets) during this period. Gaye loss a lot of enthusiasm for music during her illness and didn’t record as much. Tammi Terrell’s final public appearance was at the Apollo. Marvin Gaye was performing and to a standing ovation, they performed one of their classics together after he spotted her in the audience. This would be the final time she would ever be on stage. Tammi Terrell’s health would nosedive over the next few months to the point where she was in a wheel chair. This young woman could no longer get around on her own, hair loss, weight loss and constant pain. Terrell died on March 6, 1970 as a result of brain cancer at the age of 24. At the time of her death she was reportedly engaged to be married to Dr. Earnest Garrett. Marvin Gaye delivered a final Eulogy at her funeral. At times I feel as though outside of her father, Marvin Gaye was the only man that truly loved her and attempted to keep her happy instead of in pain. This is not to say Dr. Garrett didn't love her, I just don't know much about their relationship through my research. As for Marvin Gaye, there is no proof of a romantic relationship between the two but what they did vocally, was a marriage to say the least.
Life can be fantastic, beautiful and tragic. Tammi Terrell was a beautiful young woman with a beautiful voice. Tammi Terrell had the potential to live a fantastic life but tragedy always stayed near. When I think about the Motown Greats, she is right there with the best of them. Tammi Terrell assisted Marvin Gaye’s career just as he had elevated her status. Before Marvin Gaye’s legendary “What’s Going On” (Said to be inspired by the Vietnam War and Tammi Terrell), they charted on 13 songs. Marvin Gaye is my favorite singer of all time and I’m proud to know that an amazing young woman assisted in his rise. Tammi Terrell is one of the biggest tragedies in American Music in my opinion. We lost her on her way to the top just as we lost Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Tupac, Biggie, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse. I’m honestly sitting here deeply emotional listening to “All I Do (Is Think About You)” wondering what could have been.
"All I Do" - Tammi Terrell
Sources: Various outlets - Thereelnetwork, History.com (This Day in History March 16th)