MARVIN GAYE & TAMMI TERRELL / “Your Precious Love”
This is classic. Black man. Black woman. Finding love. Together. Deep classic. Straight up. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.) 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.
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