An event which foretold of tragedy in soul music history took place on 14 October 1967. It happened when Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were on tour in America celebrating the success of their now-classic recording of Ashford & Simpson’s ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’
In July, the song spent two weeks at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, while it was becoming a far bigger hit on the R&B chart. It had three weeks at No. 3, held off the top by, among others, Marvin and Tammi’s Motown labelmate Stevie Wonder, with ‘I Was Made To Love Her.’ Gaye was climbing that chart at the same time with his next solo hit, ‘Your Changing Love.’
The show that Gaye and Terrell played at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia was the one that confirmed all was far from well with Terrrell’s health. She fell on stage and collapsed into his arms, and was rushed to a nearby hospital with what was first diagnosed as exhaustion. When doctors conducted further tests on the Philadelphia-born singer, they found that, at just 22, she had a malignant tumour on the right side of her brain.
Marvin continued on the road, with Maxine Brown filling in at a residency the following week at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York. Before the end of the year, Gaye and Terrell were in the pop and soul charts again, with ‘Your Precious Love,’ which had been recorded back in March. Early in 1968, their magical partnership produced another major hit, taped at the same time, ‘If I Could Build My Whole World Around You.’
The pair did perform together again, and went on to record further giant hits for Motown in 1968 including ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’ and ‘You’re All I Need To Get By.’ But Terrell never regained full health. She underwent a seemingly endless series of operations, and died in March 1970, some six weeks before she would have turned 25.
Gaye, in many ways, never recovered, withdrawing from live performance and adopting the introspection that informed his brilliant, career-changing 1971 album What’s Going On. His memories of one of the most inspired partnerships in all of soul music would never leave him.
Some of Tammi Terrell’s best work with Marvin Gaye is on the United album, which can be bought here.