Biography of Motown Artist Tammi Terrell

by Nancy Hayden

Tammi Terrell was one of the many great talents on the Motown record label in the 1960s. She shot to fame quickly and partnered with the incomparable Marvin Gaye to create some unforgettable Motown hits. But a tragic health crisis extinguished this shining light far too soon. Gone, but not forgotten, Terrell left behind her beautiful voice on some classic songs.

Early Life

Tammi Terrell was born Thomasina Montgomery on April 29, 1945. Her family lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Tommie, as her family called her, was the older sister to Ludie. Tommie's dad was a barber, and her mother was an actress, singer and dancer. When Tommie was 8 years old she saw a show at Philly's Uptown Theater, and her destiny was set in her mind. She began singing, and by the age of 11, she was winning talent contests at home and as far away as New Jersey.

First Singing Gigs

As a teenager, Tommie changed her first name to Tammi and began singing in clubs, opening for acts such as Patti Labelle. In 1960, producer Luther Dixon discovered 15-year-old Tammi and signed her to Scepter Records, where she recorded singles such as "If You See Bill." It was while on the Scepter label that Tammi met James Brown. She began singing backup for Brown, and the two began a romantic relationship. Tammi toured with Brown's band until 1964.

Motown and Marvin

In 1965, Berry Gordy of Motown Records saw Tammi singing in a Detroit club and signed her. Some say Tammi adopted the last name Terrell because it sounded less country than Montgomery; others say the moniker was Gordy's idea. Either way, Tammi Terrell was born and began singing for Motown. In 1967, Terrell met Marvin Gaye, and the two began a partnership that would mean stardom. They worked with writers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson on duets such as "Your Precious Love" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

Fame and Tragedy

Terrell and Gaye were enjoying success in late 1967 when, at a gig in Virginia, Terrell collapsed onstage. The 22-year-old Terrell was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The two continued to record throughout Terrell's illness, producing two more albums over the next two years. The 1968 album "You're All I Need" included the hit duets "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By." But, Terrell's health was declining quickly. She could no longer sing live, and she underwent eight brain surgeries, all of which were unsuccessful. Terrell finally succumbed to cancer on March 16, 1970.