Born Thomasina Montgomery on April 29, 1945, in Philadephia, Tammi learned to sing and play piano as a youngster, performing on TV and coming to the attention of Scepter Records, home of the Shirelles and Chuck Jackson. She cut sides there, for Chess and for James Brown, while joining the JB touring revue. The poster for a typical Mr. Dynamite show – this one in Springfield, Oregon on May 2, 1963 – was certainly provocative: “Sextra! New Singing Excitement! Tammy Montgomery.”
In Detroit, Tammi seemed to find a bolder, more confident identity, evident on her rambunctious first single for Motown, ‘Come On And See Me,’ and debut album, Irresistible, produced by Bristol and Fuqua. These sessions are assembled in Come On and See Me: The Complete Solo Collection, together with her earlier work elsewhere, such as the James Brown-produced ‘I Cried.’
Harvey Fuqua had brought Marvin Gaye into Motown, so it wasn’t a surprise when Tammi and the company’s male heartthrob were teamed up. “[Marvin] and Harvey were the best of friends,” remembered Bristol. “The four of us were like a little family thing, people who liked each other, there was a lot of kidding and laughing, which took away the tensions of recording.”
In song, Marvin and Tammi were born to be together. Working first with Johnny and Harvey, then with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, they turned out a succession of soaring pop spirituals, typified by two of Motown’s finest 1968 sides, ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’ and ‘You’re All I Need To Get By.’ Little wonder that the world fell at their feet, and that these songs have been sung many times since by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams, Michael McDonald, My Morning Jacket, and Justin Timberlake and Beyonce.
Yet Tammi’s health was poor as her star ascended. The youngster had been suffering from severe headaches, and during a 1967 show with Marvin in Virginia, she collapsed onstage. The ailment was diagnosed as a brain tumour, requiring hospitalisation and frequent surgery.
“When I learned just how sick she was, I cried,” Gaye told biographer David Ritz. “Love seemed cruel to me. Love was a lie. Tammi was a victim of the violent side of love – at least, that’s how it felt. I have no first-hand knowledge of what really killed her, but it was a deep vibe, as though she was dying for everyone who couldn’t find love.”
Terrell succumbed on March 16, 1970, at age 24. The funeral was held at Philadelphia, at the Methodist church where she once sang in the choir. Of course, Marvin Gaye was among the mourners.