Tammi Terrell knew early in her life she wanted to make music. She began singing in churches and school talent shows. As a young teenager, in 1960, she launched her professional singing career after signing to Scepter Records. Tammi quickly went to work, releasing her first single “If You See Bill” in that same year. She also sang demos for the Shirelles, an already-established girl group on the label. At eighteen, she met James Brown and signed to his label Try Me in 1963. Under his label, she released her second single “I Cried.” Together they toured the country, but eventually she left his label to explore other options. Following a performance at Detroit’s 20 Grand Club, she was noticed by Berry Gordy. He asked Tammi to sign with Motown, which she did on April 29th, 1965. Berry Gordy then introduced her to Marvin Gaye and suggested they sing as a pair.
Together, Marvin and Tammi released three albums, the first one being United in 1967, which peaked at #7 on the US R&B charts. Their next two albums You’re All I Need (1968) and Easy (1969) were equally successful. From those albums came the timeless classics “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Your Precious Love.” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” earned Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye their first Grammy nomination in 1967. That same year, they toured across the US, where their fame continued to grow. Throughout the tour, Tammi complained of headaches and migraines—something she experienced most of her life—yet insisted she was fine to perform. During a show in Virginia, however, she collapsed onstage into Marvin Gaye’s arms. Despite his concerns, she continued to perform. After collapsing again in Chicago, she returned home to Philadelphia, where she was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Facing a grim diagnosis, Tammi remained optimistic. She continued to record music and perform when she had the strength between surgeries. In 1969, she even released a solo album Irresistible, which was comprised of songs she had recorded between 1965 and 1968. Sadly, on March 16th, 1970, following her eighth surgery, Tammi fell into a coma and passed away. Her death sent shockwaves through Motown, especially affecting Marvin Gaye. After her funeral, he would take a hiatus until June 1970. His grief became one of his motivations for the iconic album What’s Going On (1971).
Tammi Terrell’s career, however short, was bright. Her impact went far beyond what she could have conceived, and, in 1999, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye performing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
Born Thomasina Montgomery, Tammi Terrell performed under two other stage names before joining Motown: Tommie Montgomery and Tammi Montgomery. It was Berry Gordy who suggested Tammi Terrell because the name flowed well.