Beautiful and possessing an incredible voice, Tammi Terrell was a shooting star who rose to become Motown’s hottest singer only to tragically have her career and life stolen from her at her peak by cancer.
Born in Philadelphia in 1945, Terrell gained fame locally as a mature young vocalist, and signed her first record deal at age 14. Legendary singer James Brown saw her perform and quickly made her part of his band and his lover when she was just 17. A romance with Brown ended after a physical confrontation, and Terrell returned home to Philadelphia to become a college student.
Briefly into her college career, Terrell joined Chicago soul man Jerry Butler as part of his group, performing around her studies. But when Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. saw her perform with Butler, he saw her star quality and immediately signed her to a singing contract. She left college and moved to Detroit.
Terrell recorded several sides for Motown, but it was her pairing with rising star Marvin Gaye (and new songwriters Ashford and Simpson) that made folks take notice. “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Your Precious Love” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” shot to the top of the charts and made the physically attractive and vocally perfect couple the hottest thing going on the hottest label.
During this period, Terrell’s off and on romance with Temptations lead singer David Ruffin provided plenty of drama, again reportedly ending following a physical confrontation. But while she was unlucky in love, Terrell was golden in song, with her future seemingly limitless. However, headaches that had bothered her since childhood steadily grew worse, eventually leading her to collapse into Gaye’s arms during a public performance. The subsequent diagnosis of brain cancer changed everything.
Surgery after surgery left Terrell alive but weaker. While wheelchair bound, she recorded one full album of duets with Gaye, called Easy, but she was never able to fully resume her career. Sadly, Terrell died on March 14, 1970 at the age of 24, leaving a short but powerful legacy along with questions about what could have been if this incredible talent could have had the full career she deserved.
By Chris Rizik