MARVIN GAYE & TAMMI TERRELL / “Your Precious Love”

This is classic. Black man. Black woman. Finding love. Together. Deep classic. Straight up. marvin & tammi 02.jpg In America, it’s not just classic, it’s also rare, and when you find love, the flame be like a small light you got to hold close between the two of you. Close so that the trade winds don’t blow out the love light, but give the flame enough space to breath and dance. Sometimes the romance is real—at least for a little while. Ask Marvin, handsome as a mofo and double-tormented as most mofos are. Don’t even deal with all the stuff he went through and eventually succumbed to, just deal with his brief duet with Tammi. tammi terrell 01.jpg Tammi. A sister he didn’t even know could sing. Attractive but attached when he met her. And she could sing. Attractive to him. Attracted to him. And damn, she really could sing. A Philly sister. Thomasina Montgomery was born April 29, 1945 and died of brain cancer shortly before her 25th birthday on March 16, 1970. She toured first with James Brown. If you know about JB, you can imagined how involved that relationship became. Thomasina’s family intervened. At one point she enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania. But the stage continued to call, this time the emcee was Jerry Butler. While working with Butler, Ms. Montgomery came to the attention of Berry Gordy, who not only brought her into the Detroit fold, he also, as was his usual wont, gave her a complete make over including a new look and a new name: Tammi Terrell. tammi terrell 02.jpg A few singles later she was tapped as a replacement for Kim Weston (who had herself previously replaced Mary Wells). The session was a collaboration with Marvin Gaye. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1967) was the couple’s first single. Unfortunately, the beginning was also the end. Within mere months—two albums and a handful of huge hits later—Tammi literally collapsed in Marvin’s arms onstage at a concert at Hampden-Sydney college in Virginia on October 14, 1967. Although she never recovered and was unable to return to performing, she continued to record virtually until the end of life. The sessions were difficult because Tammi was physically weak and no one wanted to see her suffer just for the sake of making another hit but her spirit was strong and she persisted. Valerie Simpson, who often filled in for Tammi during the final months, recalls and admires Tammi’s spiritual toughness. In terms of facing adversity, Tammi was iconic. tammi terrell 03.jpg Black women: there blackness ain’t about hue, it’s about sharing the pain of what we been through. And knowing like only who feels it knows it. After over 75 generations of dealing with this shit, some of this understanding is at the DNA level—and if you are uncertain, fuzzy or totally uncognizant about what shit I mean by “this shit,” well… ahh, well, look, forget about it; it’s kind of late at night to be obsessing about something that happened ‘fore day in the morning. marvin & tammi 06.jpg But take my word for it, the way Tammi Terrell hit it off with Marvin was much more deep than shallow make believe. You know Marvin had already been doing duets with Kim Weston and with Mary Wells, and had had hits. Singing with a woman was nothing new. Singing with Tammi was a whole other level of harmonizing. If you have ears, you can hear it. But then again, most of us can’t. Trivia note, the third Marvin & Tammi album, Easy, is false advertisement. Most of the tracks were not only composed and produced by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, but that’s Valerie, not Tammi, singing the majority of the female parts. And not only didn’t most of us know it, but now that we know, the majority of us (me included) would hesitate to bet our lives that we could pick out the Tammi from the not Tammi. But we don’t have to feel bad. On one level, the Tammi/Valerie deception reflects what I was talking about in terms of “Black woman.” Fortunately, all of the major hits are actually Marvin and Tammi. marvin & tammi 01.jpg What I believe is that the deeptitude of Tammi was not mainly her voice but rather her person. The way she parted her lips when she looked up into the brown orbs lowered to slits that was the cobra gaze of Marvin’s eyes suggested the look of a hopeless romantic but was really the bravery of a twice wounded veteran willing themselves to wage another battle. In matters of love, Tammi was no young thrush hypnotized, she was a woman unafraid of either a fist or a caress. I am referring to the rumors about Tammi suffering battering. She was a sufferer. Not a pampered princess but rather, sister love coming through the slaughter with her head high and a song in her heart. And Marvin with his own personal knowledge of domestic demons undoubtedly recognized a fellow traveler, immediately once they sang together, recognized this was a woman he could relate to without having to say a word about what he been through or she confessing her own wrestling. Runaways don’t have to show each other the scars. They know. No one survives slavery/capitalism/racism, the way Black women were used, the way Black men were abused—and I ain’t even talking only about ante-bellum bullshit, cause check it, the war is still going on, and if you don’t know, you best ask somebody. marvin & tammi 04.jpg Anyway, one good way to understand Marvin and Tammi singing together and how come their sound is so profound that lovers everywhere on the globe relate to it, and people not in love relate to and are thankful to hear what it must be like to… one way to get a little handle on it, is to read Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison’s novel about Black love in the face of oppression: Beloved. marvin & tammi 03.JPG That’s what Marvin and Tammi had. They were singing of joy that is distilled from indescribable pain. A joy so potent, that one drop is too much for the uninitiated to handle. People in America can pretend otherwise if they want to, but when you see an ordinary Black woman and an ordinary Black man, deeply in love with each other and expressing that love, boldly, brilliantly, singing about how… when you experience that, you have experienced something so special, so very special, special to the point that when you see it, you know it’s special even if you don’t know what makes it special. I ought to talk a little about the tunes Marvin and Tammi are singing, I ought to talk some about how they were onstage in Virginia and the tumor struck and Tammi fainted in Marvin’s arms—Romeo and Juliet was merely some teenage drama compared to the truth of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. marvin & tammi 07.jpg If I were being a responsible journalist I would be talking about how Marvin was so affected that it was three years before he went back onstage, three years and producing his 1971 masterpiece, What’s Going On, before he was together enough to resume some semblance of normalcy as a performer. If I were really on my “J” as a music critic I would be divulging some of the Motown madness that fifty years later is still not fully understood; the family that was too often as dysfunctional as it was successful; Egyptian dynasties had nothing on Motown when it came to intrigue and marriages of convenience, assignations and trysts borne because one was after one thing and the other was after another thing and the union of the two searches benefited both parties even though it was not a genuine union of love—is that Machiavelli scribbling in the corner of the basement studio? Anyway, I’m going to leave it alone. Simply point to the fireplace and say that is where the ashes are, if you want to try to relight it that’s on you. I think, at some level, the prudent thing to do is give thanks for the musical food that continues to nourish us, food prepared in the Motown pot. Besides, what Marvin and Tammi gave us was more than music as a consumable. (That Coke commercial notwithstanding—it’s there because wherever flowers grow, you generally find some dirt. I mean contradictions are not negations; just cause there’s a downside doesn’t mean we’re not being lifted up.) barack & michelle.jpg I dedicate these songs to Barack and Michelle Obama. I can tell by the way they look at each other, even when the whole world is watching (or should I say, “especially” when the whole world is watching), we all can tell that they understand not just love, but love that surmounts the down under that has torn so many of us apart. Barack and Michelle. They understand, value and share “Precious Love.” —Kalamu ya Salaam All the tracks except the Coke comercial are available on The Complete Duets.  

This entry was posted on Monday, March 16th, 2009 at 12:43 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “MARVIN GAYE & TAMMI TERRELL / “Your Precious Love””

Randy Brown Says:
March 16th, 2009 at 4:01 am

Kalamu ya Salaam… all I can say is WOW! and THANK YOU! I haven’t even completed your entire treatise yet, but the portion on Marvin & Tammi blew me away. You beautifully express so many of my own feelings and observations through the years!

I happened to find your masterpiece because I was searching for observations of today being the anniversary of Tammi Terrell’s death. I am a HUGE fan of Marvin Gaye’s artistry and an even greater fan of Tammi’s if that’s possible. I HAD to share this site with readers on the popular Soul Music forum where I post under the moniker PositiveSoul. I hope you’ll check it out. More importantly, I hope others from the Forum will come on board to experience your deep soulful reflections, especially upon a profoundly talented songbird, not always given her due! THANK YOU! Please reach out to me vua email.

Frank McNulty Says:
March 16th, 2009 at 5:39 am

Thank you for producing this always interesting and moving series. It is so great to find ‘Breath of Life’ in my e-mail in box, makes my day.The mixtapes are a great idea. Keep up the great work.Thank you again.

R. Joyce Johnson Says:
March 18th, 2009 at 12:56 pm

breath of life is truly a saving grace. I still can’t trace how I found it. I think I was reading The Root and found a link. Whatever it was meant to be.

Thank you is not enough. The message is in the song of Tammi & Marvin, heaven surely sent you.

Nilima Says:
March 22nd, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Kalamu – the Brother with the power to express emotions, insight, perspective and feeling movingly through words. Wow!!! And then when you hooked the deep felt love of Tammi & Marvin with Michelle & Barack, Man! You hit it so on the head. You recognized and uplifted a universal love demonstrated in (but not exclusive to) these two African American couples.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Carmen Says:
June 29th, 2009 at 1:28 pm

I can’t listen to Marvin’s “Distant Lover” without my eyes tearing up. The heartbreak is tangible, too much…yet the song is probably one of the most beautiful recordings I have ever heard.
Thanks for the article.

Ray Says:
July 5th, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Thank you so much for this. I was just thinking about Tammy and decided to do some research and learn about her. I was born a few years after she died, but have come to love and admire her work. This was a great read and I’ve learned alot! Thank you!

January 10th, 2010 at 10:25 am

Thanks so much this is just perfect! I’m a soul/reggae singer living in Paris by the way.
Tammy Terrell was just perfect her eyes, her smile everything was so natural she was singing with all her heart and feeling. She is an example for us. And by us , I mean for black women by the way her and all the great black divas (Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross..) are an example for us they stayed strong and shown a positive vision although the context they were living in was so hard…Thanks again for this article it’s fabulous everything has been related the context….

g Says:
September 20th, 2010 at 3:43 am

Kalamu ya Salaam, I forgot to put the id information. So thisis redone. Thank you for your truth about Tammy. My sister told me yrs ago about Motown and BG and him being the ‘devil’. I hope someday, someone is able to tell the truths about Motown and BG for all to really know. There are many who need the release to go on and others to know to not repeat, like Shug Knight. I believed once I knew the 1/2 truth that Tammy’s death was the beginning to the end of Marvin also. To know what happened and not be able to do anything, has to be the hurt he possessed. Why we had to go through slavery and still did not get it and turn on our own is just showing money is not everything. And specially if you are possessed by something else it surely won’t give you peace and glory in the end. Gods strength and love and thank you for the truth and no more fallacies.

Chako Kanyon Says:
January 23rd, 2011 at 5:46 pm

May God continue to bless them

such beauty
such sadness

keep on pushing

thanks for your writing

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