Tammi Terrell is best known as one of Motown’s great talents although her short life was full of tragedy. Romantic and physically abusive relationships with James Brown and David Ruffin may have cut short a career that included many classic duets with Marvin Gaye. Brain cancer took her life only a month before her twenty-fifth birthday.
Born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery on April 29, 1945, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to parents Thomas Montgomery and Jennie Montgomery, she was discovered at age 15 by singer-songwriter-producer Luther Dixon. Under the name Tammy Montgomery, she recorded songs for Scepter/Want, Checker, and Try Me labels before hitting the road as a background singer for James Brown’s touring band. Many rumors swirled about Brown’s relationship with Montgomery. Suffering from severe migraines from the age of 12 led to speculation that these migraines and the repeated abuse from Brown and others were linked to the cancer that eventually killed her.
Montgomery briefly worked with Jerry Butler before Motown label founder Berry Gordy saw her sing and quickly signed her to his label on her twentieth birthday in 1965. Renamed Tammi Terrell by Berry Gordy, her career began to take off. She soon found herself as part of a Motown revue tour with The Temptations. Soon afterwards David Ruffin found his way into Terell’s life. Then a lead vocalist with The Temptations, Ruffin’s abuse of Terrell was nothing short of horrific with reports that he attacked her at different times with a hammer, a machete, and a motorcycle helmet.
In 1967, Terrell and Ruffin split, and she began her now-famous partnership with Marvin Gaye. Together, they recorded Ashford & Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” reaching No. 19 on the pop charts and No. 3 on the rhythm and blues charts. They followed up their first hit with “Your Precious Love,” which hit No. 5 pop and No. 2 R&B.
Gaye and Terrell soon went on the road, gaining a following throughout the country. Later that year, Terrell fainted onstage, into the arms of Gaye, when a migraine became too painful to sustain. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. During this difficult time, she recorded classic hits such as “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” both of which reached No. 1 on R&B charts, as she continued to struggle through several brain surgeries.
In 1969, Terrell was forced to quit performing live as her tumor continued to grow. Her final appearance was at the Apollo Theatre in late 1969. Having lost her eyesight and a significant amount of weight, Terrell slipped into a coma and died on March 16, 1970. At the funeral, Marvin Gaye delivered the eulogy. He was the only Motown representative invited to attend the funeral, a clear indictment of Motown’s treatment of Terrell throughout the final stages of her short life.